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Pittsburgh Steelers 2013 Season Preview
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Was it an anomaly, or a sign of things to come?
That's a pertinent question regarding the Pittsburgh Steelers as the 2013 season approaches and the memory of a subpar 2012 finish -- 8-8 for the first time in six years under Mike Tomlin -- slowly cedes to the background. Of course, if the initial two preseason games were indicative of anything, an 8-8 finish might not look so bad by the time December arrives.
Tomlin reacted to a second straight August loss -- a 24-13 decision to Washington -- with the sort of no-nonsense, to-the-point approach that has kept the Steelers grounded amid four division titles, two AFC championships and a Super Bowl victory.
When the team's losing, however, it sounds a little different.
"We need to get better in a hurry," he said. "Poor execution. I just told the guys we're not going to provide lip service. We're going to practice how we intend to play."
Keeping some quality bodies on the field won't hurt matters either.
The Steelers were the NFL equivalent of a MASH unit in the loss to the Redskins, with second-round running back Le'Veon Bell joining a handful of other ball-carriers on the sidelines. The youngster's malady is the most serious, however -- a Lisfranc injury in his right root -- and could cost him anywhere from six to eight weeks or the entire season, depending on which initial reports are accurate.
Also on the short-term shelf before the Washington game were tight ends Heath Miller (knee) and Matt Spaeth (foot), which doesn't help Tomlin as he seeks to replace the offensive thrust most when wide receiver Mike Wallace took his free-agent talents to Miami in the offseason.
The healthy offensive performers have been sloppy thus far, drawing Tomlin's ire.
"We are not playing with enough detail to win, to win in situational football, to win when the field gets short," he said. "When you're not scoring touchdowns, when you're moving the ball, when you're possessing the ball but not ringing up the scoreboard. We're lacking detail that is going to be required to finish drives, to finish games, etc. So we just have got to continue good work."
Things won't get drastically easy in the regular season, particularly in an AFC North that features the returning Super Bowl champions in Baltimore and a surprise pick for 2013 in Cincinnati. Pittsburgh's schedule also includes Green Bay, Minnesota and New England, though there is room for getting well when Tennessee, Buffalo, the New York Jets, Oakland, Detroit and Cleveland are on the bill.
"Every day, you try to make improvements, from doing better jobs to not dropping passes and blocking schemes," said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. "You see mistakes on day one and day two, and as long as you don't see the same mistake twice that is improvement."
2012 RECORD: 8-8 (3rd, AFC North)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2011, lost to Denver Broncos in AFC Wild Card Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Mike Tomlin (63-33 in six seasons with Steelers)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Todd Haley (second season with Steelers, second as OC)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dick LeBeau (10th season with Steelers, 10th as DC)
KEY ADDITIONS: QB Bruce Gradkowski (from Bengals), TE Matt Spaeth (from Bears), OT Guy Whimper (from Jaguars), CB William Gay (from Cardinals), DE/OLB Jarvis Jones (first round, Georgia), RB Le'Veon Bell (second round, Michigan State), WR Markus Wheaton (third round, Oregon State), S Shamarko Thomas (fourth round, Syracuse), QB Landry Jones (fourth round, Oklahoma), CB Terry Hawthorne (fifth round, Illinois).
KEY SUBTRACTIONS: RB Rashard Mendenhall (to Cardinals), WR Mike Wallace (to Dolphins), OT Max Starks (to Chargers), G Willie Colon (to Jets), NT Casey Hampton (free agent), DE/OLB James Harrison (to Bengals), CB Keenan Lewis (to Saints), S Will Allen (to Cowboys), S Ryan Mundy (to Giants).
QB: All of a sudden, incumbent Ben Roethlisberger is a veteran. The two-time Super Bowl champion enters his 10th season coming off a solid, if not superb, campaign in which he completed 63.3 percent of his throws, boosted his TD number from 21 to 26 and pared his interceptions from 14 to eight -- all in only 13 games on the field. Keeping him healthy is a significant priority for the Steelers, who signed Bruce Gradkowski from Cincinnati as the No. 1 backup.
Beyond Gradkowski, the training camp depth chart includes fourth-year novice John Parker Wilson and fourth-round draft pick Landry Jones.
RB: Change has been the offseason rule in the Pittsburgh backfield, which is now minus burly tailback Rashard Mendenhall, who's off to Arizona. Second- round pick Bell arrived from Michigan State with the No. 1 role in his grasp, thanks in part to an ability to hold onto the ball, an issue which dogged Mendenhall in his Steelers tenure. He'll miss at least six to eight weeks with a Lisfranc injury in his right foot, however, after leaving a preseason game early.
Upon returning, Bell will compete for the top job with fourth-year man Isaac Redman, who averaged 3.7 yards per carry in 110 attempts in 2012; and holdover Jonathan Dwyer, who had 623 yards on 156 carries.
Second-year fullback Will Johnson is 6-foot-2 and 238 pounds, but carried just twice in 16 games as a rookie. Injuries have been a preseason issue for the others as well, with Redman suffering a stinger in practice and Johnson leaving a game with a rib injury.
WR: It may seem ominous that the biggest wide receiver news in Steelers Nation was the departure of free agent deep threat Wallace, who headed to riches in Miami after catching 64 passes for 836 yards and eight TDs in his final Pittsburgh season.
His absence creates spotlight opportunity for fourth-year man Antonio Brown, who caught two more balls than Wallace last season while scoring five times and averaging 11.9 yards per reception.
The other wideout slot is the presumed domain of yet another fourth-year man, Emmanuel Sanders, who had 44 catches for a 14.2-yard average and one TD in 16 games in 2012.
Depth is available in the form of rookie Markus Wheaton, along with veteran Jerricho Cotchery.
TE: A significant concern exists at the tight end spot, where relied-upon veteran and Big Ben security blanket Miller went down with an ACL injury in the final game of last season. He's been expected to miss at least the first month of the season, though some reports have indicated he may return by the end of September. Miller caught 71 passes in 2012, five off his career high, and established a new watermark with eight TDs.
In the interim, his job was to fall to former Steeler and more recently ex- Bear Spaeth, who's caught 49 passes in 55 games across six seasons since Pittsburgh made him a third-round pick from Minnesota in 2007. Speath is also dogged with injuries, however, and could be out until October with a dinged foot.
OL: An unusual concern sprung from the offseason for the Steelers at left tackle, where incumbent Mike Adams was stabbed in a foiled carjacking attempt in June. His recovery and ability to be ready for the opener will go a long way toward guaranteeing Roethlisberger's long-term viability this season.
Alongside him at left guard is fifth-year man Ramon Foster, while center is the problem-free spot locked down by Maurkice Pouncey. With the departure of Willie Colon to the Jets, right guard is now owned by 2012 first-round pick David DeCastro; while the new right tackle in the absence of free-agent loss Max Starks is Marcus Gilbert, who played only five games last season thanks to an ankle injury.
DL: The key words are age and potential along the defensive front, where 34- year-old Brett Keisel is at right end on the eve of his 12th NFL season. He was in on 46 tackles and registered 4.5 sacks in 2012 and recovered a fumble.
The new nose tackle is holdover depth man Steve McLendon, a 6-foot-4, 280- pounder who made seven tackles and had two sacks last season while spelling exited veteran Casey Hampton.
The early front-runner for the left side slot is 300-pounder Ziggy Hood, who was a first-round pick in 2009 but hasn't turned too many heads with his play since. Now 26, he had 42 tackles and three sacks in 16 games last season.
LB: The strength of the Pittsburgh defense has long come from its middle, and the tradition holds true for 2013 thanks to the first-round plucking of right- side rush specialist Jarvis Jones from the University of Georgia. His arrival eases the sentimental blow of seeing ex-standout James Harrison playing for the division rival Bengals.
Harassing passers from the left side is LaMarr Woodley, whose sack numbers have dipped from 13.5 to just four over the last four seasons, but remains a high-priority threat for opponents.
In the middle, it's Lawrence Timmons entering his seventh year after a 106- tackle/six-sack season in 2012, and 12th-year man Larry Foote, who had 113 tackles and four sacks to go with two forced fumbles.
DB: Left-side cornerback Keenan Lewis started all 16 games for the Steelers for the first time in 2012, then took the money and ran to New Orleans, where he inked a five-year, $26.3 million deal. Into his short-term shoes steps former fourth-round pick Cortez Allen, who made 55 tackles, intercepted two passes and forced three fumbles in 15 games last season.
Starting on the right side is incumbent Ike Taylor, an 11th-year man who has 14 interceptions in 153 games since arriving out of Louisiana-Lafayette in 2003.
The safeties are familiar veterans Troy Polamalu, who played just seven games in 2012; and Ryan Clark, who missed just one game and registered a career-best 102 tackles with a pair of interceptions.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Ninth-year veteran Shaun Suisham returns for a fourth year with the Steelers after a stellar 2012 in which he made 28 of 31 field goals, including 12 from 40-to-49 yards and a season-best 52-yarder that tied the longest of his career. He was 34 of 34 on extra-points, too.
At punter, youngster Drew Butler is getting a push from veteran Brian Moorman, whom the Steelers signed in the spring. Butler averaged 43.8 yards on 77 kicks last season and landed 33.8 percent inside the 20-yard-line. He was 12 when Moorman debuted with the Buffalo Bills in 2001. Last season, the now 37-year- old Moorman split time between Buffalo and Dallas, averaging 44.6 yards per kick in 12 games with the Cowboys and dropping 39.3 percent inside the 20.
On returns, wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown are penciled in to handle duties in kickoffs and punts, respectively.
COACHING: It's hard to point a lot of fingers at Mike Tomlin, who, in six seasons, has led the Steelers to four division titles, two AFC championships and one Super Bowl win. His worst season was last year's 8-8, but, regardless of what this year's edition does, his resume has earned security.
He's flanked by ageless Dick LeBeau on defense and capable Todd Haley on offense, forming a unit that should at least get maximum production of out a collection of veterans and unproven youngsters.
THE SKINNY: The tradition in August previews when it comes to the Steelers is to simply scribble down 10-6, and be right the majority of the time.
It's not that easy this year for a team coming off mediocrity and dealing with a flood of new personnel, not to mention injuries, in the summertime. Four tough games with the Ravens and Bengals will go a long way toward determining Pittsburgh's long-term viability, but the early guess is that 9-7 is about as high as the bar ought to be set.
08/22 13:12:52 ET