The Pittsburgh Steelers rarely finish outside of first place in the AFC North. Last year was only the third time in the last eight seasons Pittsburgh's name was not etched on top of the division standings. With a 12-4 record, the only thing that kept them from hanging onto their crown was a pair of regular season losses to the Baltimore Ravens, who also finished with a 12-4 record.
That finish set up a wild card matchup against the Denver Broncos, a game that the Steelers lost, setting off a narrative about age and injuries finally taking their toll on the team. Offseason headlines in the Steel City mostly centered around turnover on the roster, a scramble to get under the salary cap and a contract headache with wide receiver Mike Wallace, who has yet to sign his restricted free agent tender.
All of those things make it look as though 2011 may have been the start of a new era, one in which the Steelers are constantly chasing the Ravens for the division title, with the upstart Bengals threatening from the flank. Nevertheless, Pittsburgh's success has never been a fluke. The stayed in the league's elite because of good drafting and player development and a certain resiliency befitting the team's roots in the blue collar town.
Can the Steelers find the same resolve in 2012?
Maybe it was the playoff loss, but the Steelers were a much better team than they seemed to be in 2011. They only lost four games, beating New England the day before Halloween and topping the Bengals twice. No other defense in the league allowed fewer points and yards.
Injuries took a toll. Headliners including Ben Roethlisberger, Rashard Mendenhall, Casey Hampton, Ryan Clark and others all dealt with health issues at some point between the start of the season and the playoff loss to Denver. No unit was hit harder than the offensive line, which lost Max Starks and Maurkice Pouncey. Roethlisberger was sacked 40 times, and missed one start while dealing with an ankle injury. The Broncos sacked Big Ben five times and harassed him continually in that playoff game, which owed more to their win than you know who.
Roethlisberger has been Pittsburgh's advantage over the Ravens all these years, their shutdown defenses being nearly equal. He topped 4,000 yards for the second time in his career and completed more than 63 percent of his passes despite injuries and problems in pass protection.
Best Free Agent Pickup
Starting the offseason $24 million over the salary cap prevented the Steelers from doing much of anything in free agency. They tweaked the edges of the roster with a few low-level additions, but the best contract move they made was restructuring contracts for Roethlisberger, Lamar Woodley, Ike Taylor and Lawrence Timmons.
Those moves helped put Pittsburgh under the cap and prevent a more serious roster purge.
2012 NFL Draft
Ever wonder why the Steelers are so good year after year, even when they don't break the bank on free agents? Look no further than the draft.
Last season, the offensive line was a liability, but that seems unlikely to be a problem this year. Somehow, Stanford guard David DeCastro landed in their laps with the 24th overall pick, giving them a elite talent who should start this season. In the second round, Mike Adams, a left tackle out of Ohio State, was there for them. Questions about motivation and consistency surrounded Adams prior to the draft, but if any team can iron out those kind of issues, it's the Steelers.
The best pick might have been Washington nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu. Some had him pegged as a possible first-round pick, but the Steelers snagged him in the fourth. He makes for a fine replacement for Casey Hampton, who, at 34, is battling back from a torn ACL.
From SB Nation's Behind the Steel Curtain:
Supremacy in the AFC North in 2011 was decided by a few yards spread over 16 games between three teams.
Steelers FS Ryan Clark being off just a bit from a Joe Flacco touchdown pass to Torrey Smith, giving the Ravens a comeback victory in Pittsburgh. Bengals TE Jermaine Gresham's bobble and recovery of an Andy Dalton pass into the end zone was ruled incomplete, and the Ravens won 31-24.
Baltimore won the division by virtue of the head-to-head advantage over the Steelers, but both teams finished 12-4.
How does a team position itself to be on the right side of those close plays in 2012? Simple. You go back to basics. In a pass-first league, you protect your quarterback. The selection of OG David DeCastro and OT Mike Adams will help them do that at a much higher rate than last year.
Add in a more capitalistic approach from new offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who will emphasize gaining yards and avoiding losses in all situations instead of waiting for the big play to develop.
Then you improve your pass rush. Health equals production for OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, who only played six games together last season. A deeper, more versatile defensive line will help free Harrison and Woodley up, and the deepest group of cornerbacks the Steelers have had in many years will continue to improve the league's top scoring and passing defense.
The question becomes how can either Baltimore (lost their top pass rusher Terrell Suggs) or Cincinnati (Dalton was manhandled twice by the Steelers defense) stay in pace with a 12-4 team that got better this offseason?
However they want to do it, the fact is Pittsburgh didn't rebuild, they reloaded, and they're poised to re-take the division title for the seventh time in 11 years.
The Make The Playoffs If ...
They have to beat the Ravens, at least once, this season while holding off the Bengals.
The schedule gets tougher this season with the AFC North paired up against the NFC East. Playing the AFC West, also on the docket, is going to be tougher than it used to be with Peyton Manning in the division. A strong record in their own division is the only way to ensure Pittsburgh's third straight trip to the playoffs.