EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the 25th of 32 preseason previews in 32 days leading up to the NFL season opener Thursday, Sept 5.
Win total last 5 years: 53
LVH over/under wins (9)
The Pittsburgh Steelers went 8-8 last year and missed the playoffs. For a franchise that went to three Super Bowls in the past six years, that’s news.
Mike Tomlin is 63-33 since becoming the Steelers head coach in 2007 and has never missed the postseason two straight years. He’s been a part of two Super Bowl championships. Steeler culture is about Terrible Towels, not being terrible.
At times Pittsburgh was just that and the reason was instability – something this franchise under the Rooneys hasn’t experienced since before Chuck Noll in the 1960’s.
Only QB Ben Roethlisberger, DBs Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and TE Heath Miller are the center pieces left from that six-year stretch and Miller is still on the mend after suffering a torn ACL last year.
There was also that disconnect between Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Plus the running game struggled to find a leader and the vaunted Steelers pass rush disappeared.
Pittsburgh still had the NFL’s top defense overall, but a 2-3 start that included 3-point losses at Oakland and Tennessee put them on a path to mediocrity they never could reverse.
More instability came when WR Mike Wallace, the successful replacement when Super Bowl hero Santonio Holmes left a few years back, decided to sign with the Miami Dolphins.
And in preseason rookie RB Le’Veon Bell from Michigan State was injured and will probably miss 6 to 8 weeks. Bell was part of what looks like a solid draft (LB Jarvis Jones, WR Markus Wheaton and QB Landry Jones). Wheaton out of Oregon State has been impressive as the home run threat Big Ben got from Wallace.
Until Bell comes back, it’s running back by committee and the Steelers have a bunch led by Jonathan Dwyer. Then there’s the matter of replacing Miller.
In the secondary Polamalu says he is the healthiest in years, great news for now. But Troy is beginning his 11th season and has had a difficult time staying in the lineup.
All that said, these are the Steelers and so long as Roethlisberger is under center this team is formidable. Based on reputation alone, Pittsburgh should be 9-7 at worst. But the division has caught up.
Bitter rival Baltimore won the Super Bowl last year and the rising Cincinnati Bengals are the fashionable choice to win the AFC North. Even Cleveland is showing signs of life with the development of QB Brandon Weeden and RB Trent Richardson.
As for the first five games this year, it’s workable –Tennessee, Cincinnati, Chicago, Minnesota, a bye week then the Jets. Looks like 3-2 at worst and the schedule overall isn’t as bad as others.
Vegas books have Pittsburgh projected for 9 wins. That sounds just right, which makes the playoffs an iffy proposition.
Monday: San Diego Chargers
Mark Mayer has over 35 years covering sports events and is the sports editor at GT. Reach him at [email protected].