The National Football League kicks off tonight with the Ravens teeing it up against the Broncos, and the Steelers start for real on Sunday against the Titans, so it's time for The Grandstander's all-encompassing Steelers / NFL Preview. Because of the season that the Pirates have been enjoying this summer, the Steelers have been pretty much relegated to my personal back burner. Here then is only a semi-informed opinion on how I see the 2013 season going.
Yes, I know that the team went 0-4 in the practice games, but who cares? Games are completely meaningless in terms of the who wins or loses. I seem to recall that in Bill Cowher's first year as coach, the team won only one practice game and then proceeded to rip through the regular season with the best record in the AFC (never mind what the Bills then did to them in the first round of the playoffs). Alas, I fear that such good fortune will not follow Rooney U this year.
One thing that I like about the team is that they have gotten significantly younger this year. As recently as two years ago, I saw that a significant number of key players were over thirty, some considerably so, and it concerned me. The team managed a good record and playoff appearance in 2011, but it all caught up to them last year and 8-8 was the result. So, guys like James Harrison and Max Starks are gone, and younger guys like Jarvis Jones and David DeCastro and Mike Adams are there to fill the gaps. The BIG question now is, can these newer, younger guys play, and play at a high level, and there is really no way to know until they actually play the games. Also, two key guys on defense, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor are not getting any younger, either.
I also have a grave concern at running back where Isaac Redman is set to open the season as the starter at RB. To me, Redman is the Josh Harrison of the Steelers - a nice guy to have on the team to fill in on occasion and in special situations, but you're in trouble if he's your #1 guy at the position. Rookie Le'Veon Bell was drafted to rectify that, and he seemed to be the real deal in training camp, but, so far anyway, he has proven to be too fragile to get on and stay on the field when it counts.
One big plus that the Steelers have going for them is Ben Roethlisberger. To quote Ron Cook, you can never count out the Steelers with Roethlisberger at QB for them. He alone has the ability to win games for them that they should otherwise lose. Now, you can come back at me and say, "what about those key interceptions he threw late in the season last year that cost them games and a trip to the playoffs?" Well, you would be correct there, but I am willing to give Ben the benefit of the doubt and chalk that up to his injuries that occurred in mid-season. You will recall that before those injuries, the Steelers were 7-2 and Roethlisberger was on his way to perhaps the best season of his career. So, if Big Ben can stay healthy, an 8-8 also-ran season could turn into a 10-6 playoff season.
The Steelers will never admit to being in a "rebuilding phase", and that is to their credit, I believe, but nevertheless, that is where I think they are right now. The hope is that the young guys today jell, that they can continue to add on other such players next year, and that they will be ready to be serious Super Bowl contender while Roethlisberger is still in his prime in, say, the 2014 to 2016 window.
As for 2013, I see the team being anywhere from 7-9 to 9-7 and not making the Playoffs this year. I see Baltimore winning the AFC North with the Bengals - I can't believe I'm saying this - finishing ahead of the Steelers, who will still be better than the Browns. However, one of the charms of the NFL is that a lousy team one season can be playing in the Conference Championship or the Super Bowl the next one. For that reason alone, and for the fact that you can probably count on the Bengals always being the Bengals, the possibility exists that, with a few good bounces, the Steelers could be in the post-season, but I'm not going to bet on it.
As for the Super Bowl, how about the Broncos to defeat the 49'ers in a New Jersey blizzard on February 2. (By the way, I am really hoping that Arctic conditions exist in New Jersey when the Super Bowl is played. I'm guessing that Roger Goodell will borrow from the Bowie Kuhn playbook and will be standing on the sidelines throughout the game in a sport coat.)
As always, watch, but don't bet.