There is a lot that could be and that has been written about what might be expected from the 2013 version of the Pittsburgh Steelers. From a few believing that the team will be galvanized into bouncing back, to some who expect a repeat of 2012's record, to those few believe (or who want to believe) this is the beginning of the end of an era. And there are reasons that could seemingly support all of these hypotheses.
As If It Ain't Steel discussed in a previous blog post (http://tinyurl.com/cmoxcls), today's NFL greatly favors the offense. And without a doubt, there are questions about the key areas of the Steelers offense. Remember, despite there being problems early in the season with the defense, the team still has a 6-3 winning record. It was when injuries to franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and other key offensive players were sustained that the season was effectively brought to an end.
Now, with the NFL Draft rapidly approaching, questions rise as to what the Steelers will do to fill the holes left by departed and released players. There are also questions surrounding existing players as well as coaches and the front office. Normally, an 8-8 record wouldn't cause such uncertainty, division and consternation, but the Steelers are a proud organization that is used to winning.
What, then, are the main issues facing the Steelers offense?
WILL BEN BE BIG AGAIN?
Contrary to the selective memories of most fans, offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s west coast-style offense not only kept Big Ben upright (he was only sacked 17 times through the first nine games) but also had people, including If It Ain't Steel, talking about him as a possible MVP candidate. Then he got injured, and the sacks and interceptions started to accumulate and the talk became whispers and then complete silence.
Can the man who went from Big Ben to Gentle Ben to college graduate to Ben, Sr., return to the Big Ben we all knew and gave both too much and not enough credit?
Make no mistake, Big Ben is the lynchpin and the offense revolves around his performance. And if there's any question as to whether that's so, we simply refer you to the Steelers' aforementioned post-injury slide. He simply IS the franchise right now and all involved need to remember that. - http://tinyurl.com/cnycn66
At the same time, though, like Velma in Chicago, he can't do it alone.
CAN AB BE THE NO. 1 GUY?
Two of the more talked aspects of the offense for the upcoming season are how Antonio Brown will perform without Mike Wallace, and how to replace Wallace's 64 receptions and eight touchdowns.
First off, there should be little concern from Big Ben that Brown will be able to handle the increased attention. In fact, Brown had 123 total targets in 2011, more than the 119 targets Wallace in 2012. Brown also caught a higher percentage of those targets (69 for 56.1%) than Wallace (64 for 53.8%).
Steelers former wide receivers coach Scottie Montgomery even said of Brown, in a one-on-one interview with Bob Labriola back in June of 2012, that Brown's biggest flaw was just slowing down.
"For one, 84, or Antonio, as most people would know him as, sometimes you just have to work on him backing off a little bit," Montgomery said, "because he is a guy that wakes up at 6 am and starts working out, and doesn't stop working out until about 10 p.m."
Montgomery veritably gushed over the receiver in that interview and said something that most already suspected about the Central Michigan product.
"I don't doubt any day when Antonio Brown wakes up that he's not trying to be the best in the world," Montgomery also said. "When he wakes up, he is trying to be the number one player in the world...So what he needs to understand, is from a professional standpoint, professional development sometimes happens through rest."
Keep in mind also that Brown isn't afraid of the spotlight, the workload or the responsibility. This is the same man who set a Steelers record with 2,048 all-purpose yards in 2011, has been the Steelers MVP and has been more vocal recently about taking a bigger role as a leader on the team.
The speedy wideout, almost as fast as Wallace and definitely quicker, could still benefit from a next-level speedster on the other side of him. While If It Ain't Steel has highlighted several who could fill that role, the bigger issue to Brown's game being hindered is the absence of tight end Heath Miller.
Miller is that salve that provides a panacea to any breakdown or double coverage that ails the wide receivers. During the time that he'll be away and on the mend is when the effects will actually be seen.
Yet another way of looking at it, though, is that Brown could step into Wallace's shoes as the one drawing the double coverages.
If Emmanuel Sanders does stay (the New England Patriots have until April 19th to formally make an offer to him), the Steelers are better off. Sanders is a very good blocking wide receiver who runs very precise routes. He's mainly a slot man, but is even actually a hair faster than Brown. His emergence would be a serious boon to the offense and it could benefit players like Plaxico Burress and/or Jerricho Cotchery.
Then there is the probability of adding a rookie wideout to that mix to spread secondaries thinner still. Even with Wallace gone, however, Brown, Sanders and Miller provide Big Ben with his share of big-play options. The running game, however, needs to improve. So...
CAN AB BE THE NO. 1 GUY?
No, that's neither a typo nor déjà vu. This "AB" is Ahmad Bradshaw. There's no question that the Steelers running game needs a leader, a true No. 1 back, and Bradshaw could be that back. - http://tinyurl.com/bv65mjp
Bradshaw is a good cutback and backside runner, is a good receiver out of the backfield, is a good blocker and runs with a full head of steam that has earned him a career 4.6 yards per carry. He was also listed as the top free agent running back this offseason by Pro Football Focus. - http://tinyurl.com/cthx8mv
Bradshaw met with the Steelers Thursday, but left without a contract offer. Not because the Steelers aren’t interested, but because Bradshaw’s foot is still recovering from surgery (with the walking boot clearly seen in the photo above). Even the PFF link pointed out that anyone wanting to sign him would have to consider his feet issues and "weigh that against the probability that he might miss an extended period of time with his recurring issues."
The question here, then, is whether or not the Steelers feel there is someone in the draft worth taking instead. Also, are they weighing "proven vs. unproven" and are willing to wait to work him out in a few weeks? Their Salary Cap numbers aren't exactly friendly at present, but will open up more as of June 1st - approximately $2.5 million now and just under $8 million in two months.
Also, the Steelers still have Sanders, Isaac Redman and nose tackle Steve McLendon to sign. We'll keep an eye on this, therefore, because the Steelers could bring Bradshaw back closer to Training Camp, once he is able to work out.
Will This Be A Less Offensive Line?
The Steelers' offensive line has two first and second-round picks each in its lineup: Marcus Gilbert, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Mike Adams. Can Gilbert protect Big Ben's blind side, or will he stay at right tackle and allow Adams to take the left tackle position? We're on record as saying that Gilbert and new left guard Ramon Foster work well together, especially in the run game. So, the probability exists that Gilbert, who has clamored for the opportunity to man the left side, could be moved.
With the move to more of a zone-blocking scheme involving everyone, including wide receivers, runners and even your quarterback on occasion, the need for these men to be nimble is essential. Thus their allowing Max Starks to walk. That means this very young unit has to gel and mature quickly. An OLine doesn't necessarily require all-stars across the line, just a cohesive unit working in unison. Considering this unit is potentially the youngest in the NFL next season, they have time to grow together.
Let's just hope Big Ben has as much time.
Those are the main questions currently needing to be answered. They're the basis of what to look forward to at the end of April and into next season. Their receiving a response in the affirmative, or any answer in a couple of cases, means there could be fewer unanswered questions this time next year.
TIDBITS: The dates of the Steelers’ OTAs are: May 21-23, May 28-30, June 3-6. The Steelers will hold their minicamp on June 11-13. Complete offseason schedule is here: http://www.steelers.com/news/article-1/Offseason-Program-sked-announced/8d651060-6974-41eb-959d-48a53a285f6e
Troy Polamalu believes the players should have a say in rules changes: http://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2013/03/29/polamalu-says-players-should-have-a-vote-in-rule-changes/
On Sirius XM, Will Allen threw the Steelers offense under the bus after he left for the Dallas Cowboys, saying that the unit was unsure and looking toward free agency. He alluded to the possibility of it aiding in the Steelers offense sputtering late in the season.