The Pittsburgh Steelers suffered through a tough season by the team's usual standards last season. Pittsburgh finished 8-8, and missed the playoffs only two years removed from a Super Bowl appearance.
Pittsburgh has long been one of the most consistent teams in the NFL, but that hallmark seems to be in jeopardy as the team faces some serious questions. The Steelers have talent on the roster, on both sides of the ball, but with age setting in at some key spots, it's no longer a given they will make a run at the postseason.
With Mike Tomlin at the helm, Pittsburgh will always have a hope of being one of the better teams in the AFC. This year, Tomlin will need to summon all his powers if the Steelers are to be a legitimate contender.
3 Steps To Success
1. Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley get along
Last season, it seemed these two could never quite get on the same page. Haley, the second-year offensive coordinator, is not always the most cuddly guy on Earth. Roethlisberger was miffed at some play-calling decisions. Haley wouldn't budge. This relationship desperately needs to improve.
2. Health of the defense
Troy Polamalu was missing in action for a majority of 2012, only playing in seven games because of a calf injury. Polamalu changes everything about the way Pittsburgh plays defense and without him, the secondary is highly suspect. He's also entering his age-32 season.
LaMarr Woodley played in 13 games, recording four sacks. With James Harrison gone, the Steelers need a very healthy Woodley. Pittsburgh also needs first-round pick Jarvis Jones to make an impact in his rookie season.
3. Maturation of Emmanuel Sanders
Sanders needs to fill the void left by Mike Wallace by becoming more of a threat each game. Sanders has shown the ability to make plays, amassing 626 yards last season. However with Wallace out of the mix, Sanders will be relied on more than ever to make big plays in a starring role alongside Antonio Brown.
3 Feats Toward Failure
1. Failure to stop the run
In 2012, Pittsburgh ranked second against the run. This will need to continue. Should the older defensive line begin to break down in a division filled with Trent Richardson, Ray Rice and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the Steelers could be sunk if the run defense isn't stout. With nose tackle Casey Hampton gone, Pittsburgh needs to solidify the middle.
2. Late-season schedule
The Steelers have four games starting in late November that could be a tipping point. Pittsburgh travels to face the Baltimore Ravens before coming home to play the Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals with a trip to the Green Bay Packers waiting.
For a chance at the playoffs, Pittsburgh will need to navigate this stretch successfully.
3. Offensive line collapse
The offensive line has been somewhat of a circus in recent years, with players coming and going. The larger issue has been health, something this group hasn't been lucky enough to have. Mike Pouncey and the others need to stay on the field, because there isn't a ton of depth here.
This year will be a success for the Steelers if Roethlisberger and Haley become a solid pair and the team makes the playoffs. Pittsburgh needs some luck but could make the postseason in a conference not exactly chock full of great units.
The Steelers are in a tough AFC North, with the emerging Bengals, improving Cleveland Browns and defending champion Ravens. It should be a fight as usual for the top spot in the division, with 11 wins probably being the benchmark.