COMMENTARY Missing the playoffs in 2012 was frustrating both for the Steelers players and fans. The team’s performance was impacted by numerous injuries, most notably to Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu. Having these two stars healthy for the full 2013 season should go a longer way towards improving the Steelers’ performance and boost the team’s chances for a return to the playoffs in 2013.
Looking ahead, here is a summary of the key roster moves that the team made during the offseason and key match-ups for the upcoming NFL season.
The Steelers were very quiet during free-agency, as is their usual approach, preferring to build the team through the draft. Notable signings are limited to Tight End Matt Spaeth and Quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, the latter brought in to shore up the back-up quarterback position after the poor performances of Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch in the absence of Roethlisberger last season. The Steelers also brought back Cornerback William Gay to provide depth for the secondary.
Through the draft, the Steelers appear to have made some very strong additions for the 2013 season and beyond. Outside Linebacker Jarvis Jones was selected in the first round, and the Steelers will be looking for Jones to make a quick impact on defense and in the pass rush in 2013. In the second round, the Steelers selected Running Back Le’Veon Bell, strengthening a position that was a major weak point in 2012. Late round gems could include Safety Shamarko Thomas, who could play a key role if Polamalu gets hurt again, and a possible long-term replacement for Roethlisberger in Landry Jones from the University of Oklahoma.
On the defensive side of the ball, the loss of James Harrison will be felt in the pass rush and in the intimidation of opposing offenses. Harrison was a salary cap casualty, and signed with the Cincinnati Bengals over the summer, meaning that he will get two shots this year to show the Steelers that he was worth keeping around. At 35, I think Harrison had lost a step, and if Jarvis Jones can step in and play well, Harrison will not be missed.
Wide Receiver Mike Wallace was the other major offseason loss for the Steelers. Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, who was retained by the team after signing an offer sheet with the New England Patriots as a restricted free-agent, will need to step-up this season to replace Wallace’s production and his role as a deep passing threat.
On the injury side, the loss of Tight End Heath Miller in the early part of the season will hurt the offense, particularly in the red zone.
In the first four games of the season, the Steelers face a tough opening slate against the Bengals, Chicago Bears, and Minnesota Vikings, three teams that all finished 10-6 in 2012. Add in an opener against an improved Tennessee Titans team, and the Steelers will have to hope for a strong start to avoid digging themselves a hole at 1-3 or 0-4.
The second quarter of the season features tough games at New England and at home against the Ravens. The season’s second half is highlighted by trips to Baltimore and Green Bay. The Steelers will need to perform well at home and beat weaker teams such as the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, Detroit Lions, and Cleveland Browns in order to position themselves for a return to the playoffs this year.
If the Steelers can win the latter four home games noted above, handle the hapless New York Jets and Oakland Raiders on the road, and split the season series with the Ravens and Bengals, a 10-6 season is possible, which could be good enough for the playoffs in the AFC. A healthy roster and new talent added through the draft create a sense of optimism for the Steelers as they prepare for the 2013 season.