LATROBE – Is every 8-8 season the same or can there be a different feeling to the same finish?
That has been the question for the Steelers this offseason as they come off of back-to-back 8-8 finishes.
In the case of the Steelers, the difference in finishes has been noticeable.
The Steelers stumbled down the stretch in 2012 after a 6-3 start, winning just two more games, a finish that carried over into 2013, when the team opened the season by losing its first four games.
While nobody was happy with finishing at .500 and missing the playoffs for the second year, the Steelers feel much better about themselves after winning eight of their final 12 games in 2013 after that 0-4 start.
They feel they are poised to return to the postseason in 2014.
Whether that can become reality or not will begin to be shown Friday when the Steelers report to Saint Vincent College for training camp.
Head coach Mike Tomlin was pleased with what he saw during the offseason.
“I thought we had a productive offseason,” said Tomlin, who is entering his eighth season with the Steelers. “The first rule of getting better is showing up, and I thought we had great attendance and participation. Obviously we are not a finished product.
“The next significant step for us is in Latrobe.”
Despite the strong finish to 2013, the Steelers experienced a lot of turnover from last year’s roster.
A number of key contributors, including season-opening starters Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, LaMarr Woodley, Larry Foote, Ryan Clark and Emmanuel Sanders, along with a number of key backups, are gone, leaving the team with several openings to fill.
“There’s always going to be turnover,” said offensive coordinator Todd Haley. “We have stayed the same in a lot of spots but in some key spots we’ve had some turnover. It’s just getting guys acclimated into what we are doing, the give-and-take of information and communication, most importantly.”
Unlike previous seasons, when the Steelers would replace starters with in-house candidates, many of the holes this year will be filled by players in their first season with the team.
Rookie Ryan Shazier, the team’s No. 1 draft pick, has already been penciled in as Foote’s replacement at inside linebacker. Mike Mitchell and Cam Thomas were signed as free agents to help ease the losses of Clark at free safety and Keisel and Hood at defensive end. Wide receiver Lance Moore and running back LeGarrette Blount also added as free agents to help provide depth.
Shazier and Mitchell provide immediate upgrades to the team’s defensive speed.
“I am very excited, excited for our team on both sides of the ball,” said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. “The young guys are working hard, the veterans are working hard. We’ve got some speed. If we can get that speed going in the right direction people will have to identify who is coming where.”
That will be the focus over the next month.
The Steelers opened the 2013 season with 20 players who were not on their roster in 2012. They could see a similar number of new faces once things are hashed out and final cuts are made this season.
All of that turnover in 2013, along with injuries to tight end Heath Miller, running back Le’Veon Bell and center Maurkice Pouncey helped contribute to the team’s 0-4 start. Getting the new players acclimated quickly while trying to build on last year’s strong finish will be a crucial part of training camp.
“We started 0-4. We were the only team that went 6-2 in the second half, so we finished strong,” said cornerback Ike Taylor, who took a pay cut to stay with the team this season. “So right now, I have to have the image and mindset to at least lead the young guys, because they don’t know what it takes to make the playoffs. They don’t know what it takes to win Super Bowls.”
With all of the offseason losses, there aren’t many players remaining who do know what it takes to do that. In addition to Miller and Taylor, just six other players – quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, linebacker Lawrence Timmons, safety Troy Polamalu, cornerback William Gay, long snapper Greg Warren and tight end Matt Spaeth – were around for the Steelers’ last Super Bowl victory in 2007.
Just five of those players – Miller, Taylor, Roethlisberger Warren and Polamalu – own two Super Bowl rings.
While they are optimistic about the influx of new players, the veterans are being cautious with their overall assessment until they see what everthing looks like when the team begins padded practices next Monday.
“I think we can get really fast playing in helmets and shorts but once you put the pads on, you really find out who is made of what,” said Polamalu. “I will wait for my first impressions for the first day in pads.”