Prior to the start of the 2013 season, there were a lot of questions surrounding the Steelers, who had gone 8-8 the previous year. The running game had been nonexistent, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger spent a lot of time on his back and a lot of time arguing with offensive coordinator Todd Haley. There had been key free-agent losses, like receiver Mike Wallace, while the defense was getting older and slower.
But during last year's training camp, you'd have been hard-pressed to find a player willing to say the Steelers were in trouble. "We don't rebuild," cornerback Ike Taylor said at the time. "We reload."
But after going 8-8 again last year, it seemed like the team had been loading up with blanks. And this year, rebuilding looks like the team's only option.
There's a good chance the Steelers can improve upon last year's performance, but a lot has to go right. And if the team's third preseason game — the traditional bellwether for how a team will look in the regular season — was any indication, missing the playoffs for the third straight year is as real a possibility as being the next AFC champions. Factor in a late-breaking off-field distraction — a traffic stop in which marijuana was found in a car containing starting running back Le'Veon Bell and backup LaGarrette Blount— and the negative vibes start to stack up.
Here are five reasons the Steelers could falter this year:
When it comes to the team's success or failure, Mike Tomlin will always be the guy to get the credit and the blame. And for the past few years, he's been heaped with the latter. Despite the fact that Tomlin has never had a losing season, fans have shown little patience with the seventh-year head coach. At times, he has made it easy to question his judgment. Last season, he stepped onto the field in front of an opposing player who was streaking toward the end zone, resulting in a $100,000 league fine. In 2009, after an overtime loss to the Ravens, Tomlin famously told reporters he would "unleash hell in December." The team then lost the next two games — to lackluster Oakland and Cleveland.
"We're here to build our team for 2014," Tomlin said during his first training-camp press conference. "I'm singularly focused on the now. ... We don't need to carry last year's baggage, and I say that every year regardless of what transpired last year."
Still, Tomlin does seem to get in his own way at times. And if his young team finds itself struggling in late October, it's just as easy to imagine him wrecking the ship as righting it.
Any Steelers receiver not named Antonio Brown
Prior to the 2012 season, it would have been hard to find a trio of receivers more talented than the Steelers' Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Wallace and Sanders are gone now, and while Brown is a superstar, he's going to find himself in a lot of double-coverage this year: The Steelers lack a strong threat on the other side of the field to take the pressure off. Tight end Heath Miller has had a pretty good preseason, but he's not going to draw much attention from the one guy that opposing teams know can hurt them most.
A strong second and third receiver are also crucial to an effective no-huddle offense, which the Steelers figure to run with gusto this season. What the Steelers have instead is veteran Lance Moore, who is fighting to become the third receiver behind second-year man Markus Wheaton ... and while Wheaton comes with a lot of upside, he's shown little sign of being that second-threat receiver.
"[Wheaton] is going to be key, because if we don't have another receiver, then people can just watch Brown," Roethisberger said early in training camp. "We all see what Brown can do in a game, so we need Markus to step up. We can't afford for teams to put three guys on [Brown]."
Add to the mix rookie Martavis Bryant, second-year man Justin Brown and third-year receiver Brandon Moye and you've got a lot of hope for the future ... but maybe not much promise for this season.
The running game
The Steelers have two very capable running backs in Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount. But there is some question about whether the Steelers can successfully run the ball this year ... and the backs' recent off-field antics aren't helping matters.
Bell in particular has shown an extraordinary talent for finding room to run ... but the offensive line hasn't been as proficient at opening up space. Against Philadelphia, neither Blount — who spent last season with the Patriots — nor Bell ran especially well outside of the no-huddle. They can improve as the season goes on, but still unclear is how the pair's extracurricular exploits will affect their performance.
Until a few seasons ago, the Steelers seemed largely immune to the kind of off-field hijinks that plagued other teams. Now, however, there seems to be a controversy every year. The day before that third preseason game, against Philadelphia, a Ross Township police officer pulled over a car that Bell was driving and, according to reports, discovered marijuana in the car. Bell was charged with possession and is expected to be charged with operating a vehicle under the influence of marijuana. Charges might also be filed against Blount. There's no telling what the response from the league or the team will be, although the initial reaction was to let them play.
"Obviously that conduct is detrimental to our efforts. They'll be dealt with appropriately," Tomlin said after the Eagles' game. "I didn't view it as punishment to send them home, to be quite honest with you, to not play in this pre-season game."
"I'd rather them play more than anticipated than to remove them," Tomlin added. "So that's why we took the stance that we took tonight. Obviously we have some things to do regarding the matter moving forward."
If there's a member of the Steelers coaching staff who absorbs more vitriol from fans than Tomlin, it's Haley. He's an explosive figure whose in-your-face-style has attracted heat everywhere he's coached. In fact, the offensive coordinator hears it not only from fans but from his players as well. He's famously had his differences with Roethlisberger over the team's offensive strategy. And last year he had a sideline argument with Brown over how often he called passing plays.
In fact, Haley seemed all but gone last year before the Steelers turned around a 2-6 start to finish 8-8. A lot of that success was due to an increased use of the no-huddle offense. But that's not Haley's style. He's a run-focused coach who prefers short passes to take the pressure off of the QB — a style Roethlisberger has referred to as "dink-and-dunk." The no-huddle worked to perfection this year in the team's second preseason game, against Buffalo. But once it faltered against Philadelphia, it was quickly abandoned, and the Steelers went back to their old style of offense ... which often seems to consist of two-yard rushing plays and Roethlisberger running for his life.
The Steelers can have some success on offense this year if Roethlisberger and the no-huddle get a chance to develop. That means Todd Haley stepping back and getting out of the way. But history suggests that may not happen.
In the past, it was borderline blasphemy even to insinuate that the Steelers defense was getting old and losing its edge. Former Tampa Bay Buccaneer and NFL analyst Warren Sapp was slammed by Steelers fans when he said they were old and slow in 2011 — and when he did it again last year. In 2011, the team ended up with the league's top defense. But their decline began in 2012, and now the Steelers have apparently admitted to themselves that this time, Sapp was right.
There is still a veteran presence on the unit: cornerback Ike Taylor, safety Troy Polamalu and recently re-signed lineman Brett Keisel. But the heart of the defense — especially the linebacking corps and defensive line — is now fresher and faster. And the entire squad seems to have recognized that in this league, you have to be able to get to get to the quarterback to be successful.
While this unit has the makings of another great Steelers defense, it will probably be a work in progress this year. There are too many young players still trying to find their way, and a few too many veterans who probably still need to be phased out. In addition, a defense which was once impenetrable to the run has been leaking like a sieve for the better part of two seasons. The results were little different in this year's preseason games against New York and Philadelphia. The latter game especially offered evidence that this defense isn't ready for prime time. Not only was it scorched by the first team, but second-string quarterback Mark Sanchez — cast off from the Jets for general shittiness — also had his way with the Steelers defense.
So what does that mean for the regular season? Defensive lineman Cam Heyward said it best after the Philadelphia game.
"Everything went wrong," he said. "Missed tackles, execution, a lack of energy. On top of that, we played terrible on the defensive side.
"There's got to be a sense of urgency going into the season, and if we don't step it up now, Cleveland is going to come into our house and beat us."