They say kids grow up fast these days. The Pittsburgh Steelers certainly hope so.
Before the 2013 regular season began, the Steelers already faced concerns about aging players on the roster and personnel moves that left the team looking a bit thin overall. Despite the looming shadow, however, it was hard for anyone to consider the possibility of another subpar season for Mike Tomlin's team. Going back to the turn of the millenium, the Steelers have never had consecutive seasons with single-digit wins.
Consider that incredible run. Every team has a down year, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are no exception. Yet every time, the team bounces back with a double-digit win campaign. In 2000, they won nine games and then 13 the next season. In 2003, they fell to 6-10, then went 15-1 the very next year. In 2006, the team fell to 8-8 but went back to 10-6 immediately after. Finally in 2009, the Steelers slipped to 9-7 and then went on to consecutive 12-4 seasons. Now after an 8-8 season, fans want to know which direction the graph will point.
Now the Steelers face the reality that their decade-plus run of incredible success could take a significant downturn. Every franchise faces the lean seasons, and the Steelers seemed primed for just that after the whispers of the offseason and the horrific Week 1 showing against the Titans.
It was the Titans game that raised the most questions and pointed to a potentially grim future if things don't turn around soon. The Steelers' already stretched offensive line lost center and anchor Maurkice Pouncey, a Pro Bowl performer for the last three seasons. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 125 yards and was sacked five times. The running game sputtered with a 2.1 yards/carry average. The team's defense generated a single sack and zero turnovers against the Titans. Overall the night was one to forget. It also might be the one remembered as a turning point.
Yet the Steelers have hope for brighter days. After all, Mike Tomlin's track record of success speaks for itself. The Steelers also have impact players at several positions, starting at the most important with Roethlisberger at quarterback. The defense still boasts playmakers like Troy Polamalu, Lamarr Woodley, Brett Keisel, Lawrence Timmons and more. The base of talent is there.
What's missing is a young crop of impact players to step in and fill the holes of the departed and the downgraded. The Steelers imported a promising draft crop this offseason, and it's those players who could be the ones to complement the veterans and right the ship this season.
The Steelers have boasted a revolving door of impact linebackers, and Jones looks like he could be the latest in a long line before him. The former Georgia star was the team's first-round pick, and Jones has been working at outside linebacker for the Steelers. Last year, the Steelers didn't have a single player put up more than six sacks (James Harrison, Timmons). For a team that lost a charismatic leader in Harrison to the Bengals, Jones could be a much-needed antidote as a situational pass rusher and eventual starter.
The Syracuse safety was the fourth-round pick for the Steelers in the draft, and the team could arguably use a young impact player in the secondary more than any other area. Ike Taylor is 33 and so is Ryan Clark. Polamalu is 32 and that leaves Cortez Allen as the only young starter in the team's base defense. Then again, Allen is inexperienced with only four starts on his resume. In short, the Steelers need a couple of bodies coming through as potential starters. Thomas is the sort of physical young safety the team can groom to turn into a Bob Sanders type of prospect.
The Steelers allowed Rashard Mendenhall to leave with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians to the Arizona Cardinals. The move was not a surprise since Mendenhall was not a factor last year, but it left the team with the uninspiring duo of Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman in house. Enter Le'Veon Bell, a second-round pick out of Michigan State and the Steelers' best hope of balancing Todd Haley's offense. The potential is there, but a Lisfranc injury has frustratingly lingered into the first couple weeks of the season.
After the team allowed former top wideout Mike Wallace to bolt for big money in South Florida, it drafted Markus Wheaton in the third round to round out the wide receiving corps. Wheaton comes in the mold of teammate Antonio Brown and showed well in the team's preseason. Unfortunately, he wasn't targeted in Week 1 against the Titans, so there's no game-time experience to pull from. Of all of the Steelers rookies, Wheaton will likely take the most time to see any on-field impact.