NFL Team Previews: Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers have won at least 12 games in three of the last four regular seasons, two of which ended in an AFC title and one ended with a Super Bowl trophy. But in spite of a strong season in ’11, they were edged out by rival Baltimore for the AFC North title and then beaten in overtime in the playoffs at Denver. Where do the Steelers fit in this year’s playoff race? TheSportsNotebook breaks down the boys from the banks of the Allegheny…

OFFENSE: Injuries and other problems are already a big problem here. Ben Roethlisberger finished last season playing in a boot, and now tells reporters he has a “slight tear” in his rotator cuff, but that he’s not worried about. He’s got to be the only one not worried. Wide receiver Mike Wallace is still a contract holdout, unhappy over being franchised in the offseason. The top two running backs, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer are both questionable for Week 1 in medical terms. And they’re questionable for the entire season in terms of whether they’re really good enough to carry the load. The only thing that can really be counted on in the Pittsburgh skill position corps is tight end Heath Miller, who’s only got a tweaked ankle right now.

This would be less of a problem if Pittsburgh had a really tough offensive line, but it’s one that’s okay at best. They’re solid in the middle, with the talented 23-year-old center Maurkice Pouncey clearly embarking on what’s going to be a long and good career in the NFL. Willie Colon at guard and Marcus Gilbert are competent. Individually, there’s four lineman in the starting lineup that are at least above average or, in the case of guard Ramon Foster, young enough to count on improvement. The problem is that the fifth is Trai Essex, a thorough liability who’s responsible for protecting Roethlisberger’s blind side. If this line had elite running backs behind it, I’d say they were good enough to get that initial push. If they had a healthy quarterback behind them, they would be only a mild irritant. But they’ve got to pave the way for mediocre runners and protect a quarterback whose health is a red flag. And they’re not up to that task.

DEFENSE: Can the Steelers piece together a defense built almost solely on the big-play capability of LaMarr Woodley at outside linebacker and Troy Polamulu at strong safety? There’s worse fixes to be in, as Woodley as one of the game’s top pass rushers on the outside and Polamulu is one of the great strong safeties of all time. But with James Harrison having his knee operated in and Larry Foote getting old, the vaunted Steeler linebacking corps of years’ past is losing some steam. And the nose tackle spot is a big concern. 34-year-old Casey Hampton was operated on after the playoff loss and if he’s not back, then Steve McClendon will be a significant liability. Opposing lines can likely block McClendon man-on-man and free up blockers to get at the linebackers.  Then throw in that corner Keenan Lewis can be exploited and when corners can’t cover one-on-one it limits defensive creativity with the blitz packages that Pittsburgh relies on.

But all isn’t lost when it comes to getting support for Woodley and Polamulu. The defensive ends, ZIggy Hood and Brett Keisel give real quality even if the playmaking chances in a 3-4 aren’t funneled their way. Corner Ike Taylor is good, and free safety Ryan Clark can patrol centerfield effectively.  There’s enough here for Pittsburgh to be a good defensive team. The question is whether good is going to good enough, in light of the problems on the offensive side.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTION: 10—You can tell from the tone of this article that I am not high on Pittsburgh this year. But full disclosure requires me to say I had these same thoughts last year and they still won 12 games. I respect Mike Tomlin’s coaching enormously and as a result I’m not going to laugh off the idea that they’d win 11 games in 2012 and beat this number. But even good coaches, ones with a 55-25 career record like Tomlin has, have their years where things get away, and I just think this is going to be a tough year in the city I was proud to live in for nine years. Gotta go with the Under here.