The Pittsburgh Steelers, like 31 other NFL teams, are optimistic about the 2013 season with training camp less than a month away.
However, their 8-8 season in 2012 left a lot of questions. The Steelers can’t just print up 2013 playoff tickets, because there’s a good chance they’d be wasting paper.
A lot has to go the Steelers’ way if they want to get back to the playoffs in 2013 and perhaps make a deep playoff run.
Six situations easily could go wrong for the Steelers in 2013. If most or all of these scenarios unfold, the Steelers can forget about playing in January.
Ben Roethlisberger Comes Unglued
It’s obviously a worst-case scenario for the Steelers if Ben Roethlisberger again misses multiple games with an injury, but that’s not necessarily what we’re talking about here. The concern is that all the bumps and bruises Roethlisberger has sustained throughout his career start to catch up with him.
Chest, rib, thumb, ankle, knee, shoulder, hand and foot are among Roethlisberger’s body parts that have been hurt, according to PennLive.com. Not to mention his concussions.
He’s 31 now. How much more can he take?
Roethlisberger needs to be able to move around to be effective and keep plays alive. All this wear and tear on his body eventually will slow him down and he’ll need to become a pure pocket passer to prolong his career.
Can Roethlisberger succeed as a pocket passer?
The Steelers don’t want to know the answer to that question in 2013.
Troy Polamalu Gets Hurt Again
When Troy Polamalu missed 11 games with a knee injury in 2009, the Steelers collapsed. They went 5-6 without him – including four of the five straight losses that wrecked their season – and missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record.
Last year, the Steelers went 5-4 when Polamalu missed nine games with a torn calf muscle. Will Allen did an admirable job in his place. Polamalu’s injury didn’t help, but thanks to Allen it wasn’t the central reason the Steelers missed the playoffs.
Allen signed with the Cowboys, so the Steelers no longer have Polamalu injury insurance.
Fourth-round draft pick Shamarko Thomas can’t be counted on to spell Polamalu. Rookies usually need a year to learn Dick LeBeau’s defense.
That leaves Robert Golden and Da’Mon Cromartie Smith.
Golden has shown promise, but the Steelers need a healthy Polamalu to get back to the playoffs.
Heath Miller Misses More Than a Game or Two
It’s unclear if tight end Heath Miller will be ready to go in Week 1 after tearing three knee ligaments in Week 16 last season.
Miller led the Steelers with 71 receptions in 2012 and was voted the team’s Most Valuable Player. The Steelers probably can make do if he can’t play until Week 2 or Week 3, but if he misses more time than that, it could bog down the Steelers’ offense.
The tight end position figures to be more prominent with Mike Wallace gone. Matt Spaeth, who the Steelers re-acquired after two seasons in Chicago, hasn’t caught more than 17 passes in a season. Second-year man David Paulson caught just seven passes last season.
Miller hasn’t missed more than two games in any of his eight seasons. If he does this season, the Steelers offense is in trouble.
Markus Wheaton is No Mike Wallace
The parallels are there. Like Mike Wallace, Markus Wheaton was drafted in the third round. Like Wallace, Wheaton has track speed. Like Wallace, Wheaton’s initials are MW.
Wallace caught 39 passes with six touchdowns in his rookie season. He led the NFL with 19.4 yards per reception.
The Steelers will need that kind of production from Wheaton in his rookie year to continue to have the formidable receiving trio they’ve had for the last two seasons.
Antonio Brown has caught 135 passes over the last two seasons, so he has the stuff of a No. 1 receiver. Emmanuel Sanders, however, hasn’t caught more than 44 passes in a season. It remains to be seen if he can handle an increased role.
It will help if Wheaton has an immediate impact.
It Wasn’t Woodley’s Weight
LaMarr Woodley has worked on getting in shape during the offseason after being hampered by ankle and hamstring injuries in 2012 and the last half of 2011, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. An anonymous teammate said in February that Woodley wasn’t in shape last season.
Woodley had nine sacks in the first eight games of 2011, but has had just four since then.
Even if Woodley stays on the field in 2013, what if he’s still not the player he was from 2008 to 2010, when he registered double-digit sacks every year?
What if Woodley just can’t regain that form and the injuries of the past year and a half have derailed his career?
The Steelers need Woodley to return to his pre-injury level. If he’s not getting to the quarterback and demanding double teams, it’s unlikely Jason Worilds or Jarvis Jones will on the other side.
Without a pass rush, the Steelers can forget about forcing more turnovers or returning to the playoffs.
Le’Veon Bell Isn’t the Day 1 Starter
If there’s one member of the Steelers’ 2013 draft class who they need to be a Day 1 starter, it’s Le’Veon Bell.
The Michigan State running back led the Big Ten in rushing last season with 1,793 yards. If he can’t win the starting job in training camp, the Steelers again will depend on the tandem of Jonathan Dwyer (623 yards in 2012) and Isaac Redman (410 yards in 2012).
The Steelers ranked 26th in the NFL in rushing last season and will need to run the ball better to take the heat off a passing game that lost Mike Wallace and might be without Heath Miller for a few games.
If Bell can’t beat out two guys who barely combined for 1,000 yards, he could be a bust in the making.