By James Walker
History has not been kind to Super Bowl runners-up. What issues must the Steelers address if they want to return next season?
As the confetti fell at the conclusion of Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium, a look of despair and disappointment immediately came over the faces of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The newly crowned Green Bay Packers were in full celebration mode, while Pittsburgh felt the sting of falling short of its seventh championship.
History weighs heavily against the Steelers -- seven of the past 10 Super Bowl runners-up have failed to make the playoffs the next year.
How do the Steelers avoid becoming another statistic? It will take some smart moves and solid upgrades in the offseason.
"Our goal is to try to get into [the Super Bowl] again, and just don't be on this side again," Steelers receiver Mike Wallace said. "Just get back in the lab and work harder. That's all."
Here is a preview of what's next for the Steelers:
Where are Pittsburgh’s biggest needs?
Coming off a Super Bowl appearance, the Steelers are in better shape than most teams. But they are by no means perfect.
Three losses this season -- to the Packers, New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints -- have provided a blueprint of how to beat the Steelers. It takes a top-flight quarterback and a precise, short and intermediate passing game to put enough points on the board against Pittsburgh's vaunted No. 2 ranked defense.
Forcing the Steelers' offense to play from behind makes the team one-dimensional and susceptible to the pass rush. Pittsburgh's offensive line is one of the weakest areas of the team. Those three losses to Green Bay, New England and New Orleans all played out in similar fashion.
To counter these tough matchups, the Steelers need to improve their roster in several areas.
Pittsburgh's two biggest needs are at cornerback and offensive line. Upgrades to both positions would help the Steelers combat opponents like New England and Green Bay. The Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers (304 yards, three touchdowns) beat Pittsburgh's defense by running a lot of three- and four-receiver sets, which exposed the Steelers' lack of depth in the secondary.
Pittsburgh starting cornerback Ike Taylor is solid, but he will be an unrestricted free agent (we will get to that later). After Taylor there is a dropoff to Bryant McFadden and backups William Gay and Anthony Madison. High-powered passing offenses will continue to give Pittsburgh fits unless it addresses this issue. I wouldn't be surprised if the Steelers draft a cornerback in the first two rounds.
The Steelers need to improve at guard and tackle on the offensive line. Starting left tackle Max Starks is solid and returning from a season-ending neck injury. He will replace the inconsistent Jonathan Scott. Right tackle Flozell Adams, 35, is under contract for one more year with Pittsburgh and is uncertain about his future. Guard Chris Kemoeatu and center Maurkice Pouncey are set, but the Steelers could use another starting-caliber guard.
The Steelers traditionally are not big players in free agency, so don't expect a lot of turnover. Most of their needs will be addressed in April's NFL draft.
"I think we still have a core group of players that we can build around and hopefully make another run at it," Steelers president Art Rooney II said after the Super Bowl loss. "I don't think we'll be sitting there saying we're going to make a lot of changes. We'll prepare for the draft and add some players here and there, and be ready to go."
Who are the Steelers' key free agents?
Where Pittsburgh does spend its money is retaining its key free agents. The Steelers have two big ones this year in Taylor and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley.
Pittsburgh has every intention of retaining Woodley, who was one of the NFL's best bargains after making just $550,000 in the final year of his rookie contract. Including playoffs, Woodley recorded 60 tackles, 13 sacks, two interceptions and got stronger as the season went on.
The Steelers are expected to use their franchise tag on Woodley, 26, while trying to negotiate a long-term deal. The deadline to tag Woodley is Feb. 24. But it will be challenging for Pittsburgh to work out a large extension until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached. Under the current CBA, the 30-percent rule is a major holdup in working out an extension with Woodley, who is a former second-round pick.
Taylor's situation is more fluid. The unrestricted free agent will be 31 in May and has spent his entire career with Pittsburgh. Returning will be Taylor's first preference, but he will certainly garner interest from other teams. Pittsburgh has to determine what is the right price to try to keep its No. 1 cornerback.
Other free agents of note for Pittsburgh include backup quarterback Dennis Dixon, tailback Mewelde Moore, kicker Shaun Suisham and offensive linemen Willie Colon and Trai Essex.
Can Pittsburgh remain a contender?
As we mentioned earlier, history is not kind to Super Bowl runners-up. Pittsburgh also will have to overcome its own negative history. The last two times the current Steelers made the Super Bowl -- both victories -- they missed the playoffs in the following seasons, 2006 and 2009.
The Steelers are usually at their best as underdogs. That was the case this season; most experts wrote off Pittsburgh because of franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's four-game suspension at the beginning of the season. But the Steelers showed they could overcome setbacks and made it to Super Bowl XLV.
Expectations will be high for Pittsburgh next season, because a lot of talent and veteran leadership remain. But is it enough to get to Super Bowl XVLI in Indianapolis?
"I love this group; I think it is a heck of a group," said Steelers linebacker and captain James Farrior. "There is a lot more football left in us. We just have to stay together. Hopefully, everything works out in the offseason and we get back here next season."
If the Steelers can go back and win the Super Bowl, they would be the first team since the 70's Dolphins to lose a Super Bowl and go back the following year and win it. How sweet would that be? Scorp knows his history.