F. Dale Lolley's Sports Column
An off season: Steelers face multiple challenges moving forward
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had an up-and-down season and missed three games with injuries.
Steelers running back Jonathan Dwyer must show he can be more consistent.
Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel started slow but finished strong.
Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress makes a touchdown catch as Browns cornerback Joe Haden defends during the final game of the season Dec. 30. Burress is an unrestricted free agent.
PITTSBURGH – The story of the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers is one of a team that was never able to put everything together at the same time.
When the offense was playing well in the first half of the season, the defense was uncharacteristically giving up late leads to lose games.
When the defense finally got things figured out, the offense faltered down the stretch following quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s rib and shoulder injuries Nov. 12. The result was an 8-8 season that left the Steelers on the outside looking in for this weekend’s playoff games.
Correcting some of the problems that plagued this team – a lack of producing turnovers on defense and a lack of a consistent running game on offense – will be the two major points of emphasis moving forward.
So, too, will be replacing some of the 18 unrestricted free agents, a difficult task considering the Steelers’ salary cap situation.
Pittsburgh has 44 players under contract for the 2013 season at a cap value of $133 million. That puts the Steelers roughly $12 million over the projected cap of $121 million.
Here is a position-by-position breakdown:
Roethlisberger was having one of his best statistical seasons prior to suffering rib and shoulder injuries in a 13-10 win over Kansas City.
Roethlisberger wasn’t the same when he came back, returning more to his gambling style rather than sticking with offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s ball-control offense.
Injuries on the offensive line were an issue, but Roethlisberger did not appear to be 100 percent healthy down the stretch, throwing late interceptions that led to losses against Dallas and Cincinnati.
Backups Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch filled in during the three games Roethlisberger missed. Both will be unrestricted free agents.
Leftwich again was injured, an issue that has hounded him, and the Steelers will not retain him.
Batch, who led a rousing 23-20 win at Baltimore Dec. 2, is 38, but could return for one more season while the Steelers groom a younger player to serve as Roethlisberger’s backup.
Last spring, director of football operations Kevin Colbert said the Steelers weren’t expecting any contribution from Rashard Mendenhall, who had suffered a torn ACL in the regular season finale.
Colbert didn’t know how true that statement would be.
Colbert also said he felt comfortable the running backs on the roster would be good enough to carry the load while Mendenhall recovered. That statement was proven wrong.
With Mendehall limited to 51 carries because of injuries and a late-season suspension, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman were expected to pick up the slack.
While they combined for 1,033 yards on 266 carries, they also had issues with consistency.
Dwyer and Redman showed they are better served as being complementary backs.
With Mendenhall, Dwyer and Redman headed for free agency – Mendenhall unrestricted and Dwyer and Redman restricted – the Steelers have some tough decisions.
Mendenhall is a two-time 1,000-yard back and has the speed Dywer and Redman lack. Coming off a severe knee injury and subsequent Achilles’ tendon injury caused by returning too soon, Mendenhall’s value isn’t what it would have been if he were completely healthy.
If the Steelers can bring him back at a reasonable price, they will consider it.
Dwyer was given a chance to be the feature back late in the season, and the coaching staff was upset at his lack of fire. He pulled himself out of games several times after making just a couple of carries in a row, so it appears he will never be a 20-carry-per-game runner.
Redman battled through injuries but opened the season as the starter. He was largely ineffective in that role but is the best blocker and short-yardage runner.
Rookie Chris Rainey was expected to play a bigger role in the offense, but was mainly used as a return man, averaging 26.5 yards. He is too small (5-8, 178 pounds) to ever be used for more than five to 10 touches per game.
Fullback Will Johnson proved to be a valuable pickup in the offseason. He improved as a lead blocker each week and averaged 9.2 yards on 13 receptions. His role could increase next season.
Baron Batch suffered a broken arm in a Week 16 loss to Cincinnati but isn’t much more than a special teams player now.
No group disappointed more than the wide receivers. They struggled with inconsistency and fumbles.
Mike Wallace held out of training camp and admitted it took him time to adjust to Haley’s short passing game.
Antonio Brown was given a $42 million contract extension coming off his team MVP season in 2011, but missed three games with an ankle injury suffered Nov. 4 in a win over the Giants. He struggled at times after his return with the ankle and saw his punt return average dip from 10.8 yards in 2011 to 6.8 yards.
Emmanuel Sanders caught a career-high 44 passes for 626 yards as the No. 3 receiver, but also had more than his share of drops. Veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress, who was signed to help offset the injury to Brown, didn’t get enough opportunities to make a major impact.
Wallace and Burress will be unrestricted free agents. Wallace will test the open market, and it’s unlikely the Steelers would place a franchise tag on him given the cap situation.
Burress could be brought back at the veteran minimum, particularly if Wallace is not retained.
Sanders is a restricted free agent, and the team will be forced to increase his salary with a higher tender.
Team MVP Heath Miller flourished in Haley’s offense, leading the Steelers in receptions, despite missing the final game of the season with torn knee ligaments. Miller also earned a nod to his second Pro Bowl, but will not participate because of his injuries.
He should be ready to return by the start of the 2013 regular season.
Rookie David Paulson shows promise but needs to get stronger, and veteran David Johnson will likely be brought back after missing the season with torn knee ligaments.
Veteran Leonard Pope fell behind Paulson on the depth chart. He will be an unrestricted free agent and is unlikely to return.
The Steelers have used four premium draft picks in the past three seasons on offensive linemen, and the time has come for those players to step into prominent roles.
Center Maurkice Pouncey made his third consecutive Pro Bowl, though he also was forced to play guard at times because of injuries on the line.
Tackles Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert, second-round picks in each of the past two years, saw their seasons ended early by ankle injuries. Adams, named the team’s rookie of the year, will probably be moved to left tackle next season, with Gilbert staying at right tackle.
With Adams ready to play on a full-time basis, veteran Max Starks, an unrestricted free agent, has probably played his last game for the Steelers. After nine years and three Super Bowls, Starks will get an opportunity to start elsewhere after playing every offensive snap in 2012.
Guard Ramon Foster and center Doug Legursky are unrestricted free agents, with Foster being a possible re-signing if injury-prone Willie Colon, who ended each of the past three seasons on injured reserve, is let go.
If the Steelers release Colon, who is slated to earn $7.65 million in 2013, it would save them just $1.2 million against the cap. Colon has been, at times, their best offensive lineman, but the injuries could be a consideration.
Rookie Kelvin Beachum and first-year player John Malecki showed enough to be valuable reserves.
Pending free agent Casey Hampton wants to play two more seasons despite being 35 years old. Hampton got better as the season wore on and is still a good 3-4 nose tackle. Steve McLendon is ready to take over, so Hampton could be brought back as a backup, but that’s unlikely to happen.
At defensive end, Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood got off to slow starts but got stronger as the season wore on.
Keisel suffered a knee injury in the final game, but isn’t expected to require surgery. The defensive captain, Keisel will be counted on even more for leadership if Hampton doesn’t return.
The Steelers were disappointed in second-year defensive end Cameron Heyward in training camp. The 2011 first-round draft pick didn’t make the expected jump but did show flashes down the stretch.
LaMarr Woodley had a career-low four sacks, not the kind of production expected out of the highest-paid defensive player.
Woodley’s lack of production is especially troubling given that 35-year-old James Harrison outplayed him, despite missing training camp and the first three games of the regular season with a knee injury.
Woodley will count $13.24 million against the salary cap, while Harrison’s cap value is $10 million. Lowering that total will be a priority in the offseason.
In his third season, Jason Worilds was a valuable backup, making three starts and finishing second behind Harrison and Lawrence Timmons with five sacks. If the Steelers part ways with Harrison – a move that would save just over $5 million in cap space – Worilds could be a starter, or at least split time at the position, possibly with Chris Carter, who finished the season on IR.
Improving the pass rush will be an offseason priority.
Veteran Larry Foote and Timmons manned the inside positions and were solid. Timmons had his best season, leading the team in interceptions.
Foote will be an unrestricted free agent, and with heir-apparent Sean Spence losing his rookie season to a preseason knee injury, the Steelers would be well served to bring Foote back.
Easily the most improved group, the cornerbacks provided solid play no matter who was out there. Because of injuries to Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor, the depth in the secondary was tested as much as any position.
Keenan Lewis thrived at corner in his fourth season after beating out Cortez Allen for the starting spot opposite Polamalu and led the AFC with 26 pass defenses. He’s an unrestricted free agent and has gone from an afterthought to perhaps the biggest offseason priority signing.
Allen played the nickel position most of the season until stepping into a starting role for Taylor late. He produced five turnovers in the final two games – two interceptions, three forced fumbles – and has a bright future.
Taylor missed the first three games of his career since breaking into the lineup. He struggled early in the season, but rebounded with a solid final three months to be one of the leaders of the NFL’s top pass defense.
Veteran Will Allen stepped in for Polamalu after Ryan Mundy failed in that role early in the season. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent and the Steelers would be wise to bring him back for at least another year.
Polamalu was limited by a calf injury to just seven games. But he was highly disruptive in the final two games and showed the burst over the final month that had been missing earlier. He should rebound in 2013.
Ryan Clark’s play was again solid at free safety and he became more of a vocal leader. With Polamalu and Clark over 30, the Steelers have a serious need for youth at the safety position.
The Steelers got contributions from a number of young players in the secondary, including Josh Victorian and Robert Golden, both of whom could fill larger roles next season.
Placekicker Shaun Suisham bounced back after a sub-par 2011 and missed just three kicks, two of which came from beyond 50 yards.
Rookie punter Drew Butler surprisingly made the roster after veteran Jeremy Kapinos missed training camp with back problems. Butler looked good early in the season, but struggled as the season wore on, finishing in the bottom third of the league in both gross (43.8) and net (37.8) average. He should have competition heading into training camp.
Long-snapper Greg Warren will be an unrestricted free agent, and the Steelers could look for a cheaper alternative.
Head coach Mike Tomlin didn’t have his best season, making a critical error in a loss at Tennessee by having Suisham attempt a 54-yard field goal late in the game that gave the Titans great field position and bungling the running back situation.
But he’s still an excellent motivator and usually has a pretty good handle on the pulse of his team.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau had a solid year, leading the Steelers to another top ranking in overall defense. Finding a way do that and create more turnovers will be a focus in the offseason.
The Steelers flourished early on offense in their first year under Haley’s direction, leading the league in third-down conversion percentage. But injuries, particularly to Roethlisberger and Brown, caused the offense to falter down the stretch.
The blowup between Haley and Roethlisberger many expected never happened, though the two were not always on the same page. Getting Roethlisberger to completely buy into the program will be the top priority for Haley – assuming he is not hired as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.
Former assistant special teams coach Amos Jones took over full duties by himself when coordinator Al Everest was let go prior to the season. As mentioned, Suisham had his best season and the return game was consistent with what the Steelers had done the previous season. Penalties plagued the units, as did a pair of successful fake punts late in the season.
Tomlin must find a coach to work with Jones on the special teams units and an offensive line coach to replace Sean Kugler, who left to become head coach at UTEP.
If Haley leaves, Tomlin could be forced to hire an offensive coordinator for the second consecutive season, though the top in-house candidate, running backs coach Kirby Wilson, could be that person now that he is a year removed from injuries suffered in a fire at his home last January.