By Alan Robinson

Published: Tuesday, February 19, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Updated 46 minutes ago

The Steelers must be wondering if it was merely a one-year decline by numerous players or a sign of big trouble ahead as they evaluate an accomplished-but- aging team.

Their slump to an 8-8 record in 2012 after being 12-4 each of the previous two seasons is evidenced in the final position grading by Pro Football Focus, a website that analyzes every NFL player on every play.

Of the 24 positions analyzed — each starting position minus fullback, which the Steelers didn't utilize in 2011, plus the two kickers and kick returner — the Steelers declined at 15. Some of the falloff was steep and alarming.

There was improvement at nine positions, though some of it was negligible. Ben Roethlisberger, for example, graded out as the NFL's seventh-best quarterback each season, but his QB rating was higher in 2012 than in 2011.

And there were some surprise grades. Maurkice Pouncey was the All-Pro center in 2011 but slipped to second team in 2012. Yet he graded out a much-higher 12th at his position, compared to 19th during the season he was chosen as the NFL's best.

Eight positions on offense declined, with the must precipitous drop at wide receiver. Antonio Brown (No. 6) and Mike Wallace (No. 12) graded out in the NFL's top dozen in 2011, but neither was in the top 40 in 2012. Brown also dropped from No. 2 to No. 19 among kick returners.

Defensive end Brett Keisel fell from No. 4 to No. 21. And nose tackle Casey Hampton, whose Steelers career might be done, dropped from No. 34 to No. 77 among all defensive tackles.

At running back, Rashard Mendenhall graded out at No. 11 in 2011, but he was on the field only sporadically in 2012. Team rushing leader Jonathan Dwyer graded out at No. 58 at a position where there are only 32 starters.

“We are going to need a better performance out of the running back position if we're going to be successful,” team president Art Rooney II said last month. “Whether it's Rashard or Jonathan or Isaac (Redman) or somebody else.

“Again, in this offseason, that's something we've got to look and decide how we get better and who we get better with.”

The grades didn't always truly represent the slippage in play.

Safety Troy Polamalu was No. 1 ranked in 2011, and was one of the league's highest-grading players overall. He was 13th in 2012 yet was on the field for only 402 snaps — compared to 930 in 2011 — because of a torn calf.

Outside linebacker James Harrison's overall grade didn't change that much, from No. 6 to No. 11, but his overall impact did because a knee injury sidelined him for the first month of the 2012 and limited him for weeks after he returned.

The biggest improvement was made by inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who jumped from 28th to fifth. Shaun Suisham missed only three times all season and improved from 21st to 11th among kickers.

Several players graded out at nearly the same. Guard Ramon Foster was No. 31 in 2011 and No. 34 in 2012. Defensive end Ziggy Hood went from No. 32 in 2011, the lowest-ranked among all starters at the position, to No. 31.

In cases where a starter changed, the replacement's grades were matched against those of the previous starter.

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