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Recent posts by Mike Wilkening
"OK, I'd like to say a few words about the 2012 Steelers."
(Takes out notecard from jacket pocket.)
"The Steelers have Ben Roethlisberger under contract for 2012."
(Taps microphone.) "Is this thing on?"
"In conclusion, if the Steelers get a typically productive season from Ben Roethlisberger — who's in the prime of his career — they will be contenders in 2012."
"That's it. That's my speech."
OK, so it's not that simple when asssessing the Steelers' chances to contend next season. Age is a major concern for the Steelers' defense. Eight Week One starters will be 31 or older by the end of September 2012. The Steelers have been preparing for the future as well as they possibly can, but more young reinforcements are needed, especially at nose tackle, linebacker (inside and outside) and in the secondary. This is a very important offseason for the Steelers; they must continue to keep restocking the roster with young defensive talent. A draft with a few early impact contributors would be most welcome in Pittsburgh.
The good news for the Steelers? Their recent smashing success at adding young, fast wide receivers gives them a chance to retool their roster and stay competitive. These Steelers can probably withstand some regression by the defense and still be competitive. Roethlisberger, who turns 30 in March, is in the prime of his career, and his top targets, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, figure to give defenses fits in 2012.
The biggest need position on the offensive line remains the offensive line, with guard and tackle positions Pittsburgh should consider addressing. Running back could also be a position of need with Rashard Mendenhall suffering an anterior cruciate ligament tear in Week 17.
Overall, though, the Steelers' offense is a strength.
The defense, too, of course, figures to be nothing if not solid in 2012. But contributions, and perhaps major ones, from young players already on the roster — and maybe a key rookie or two added in April — might prove necessary. Several young defenders showed promise this season, with OLB Jason Worilds' play particularly a positive.
Yes, the Steelers' defense had a day to forget in the surprising wild-card round loss to Denver. The Steelers did not sack QB Tim Tebow once, and they surrendered 316 yards passing, including five pass plays of 30 or more yards. Ike Taylor, their best cover cornerback, had a nightmarish day.
However, to write off the Steelers' defense would be premature. No defense allowed fewer yards in the regular season.
Think ahead to 2012. Of the AFC playoff clubs, whose defenses would you take over Pittsburgh's? A good case could be made for Baltimore, certainly, but it has a few of the same age concerns Pittsburgh has. Houston's defense is very good, but it has only performed at a high level for one season. Cincinnati's defense is solid, but it's not Pittsburgh. And Denver and New England don't have stop units of Pittsburgh's caliber.
The Steelers were not a healthy club at season's end. Roethlisberger played through a high ankle sprain. C Maurkice Pouncey missed the wild-card game with a high ankle sprain of his own. LOLB LaMarr Woodley was limited by a hamstring injury. DE Brett Keisel and NT Casey Hampton departed with injuries Sunday. And FS Ryan Clark sat out the game because of potential health risks from playing at high altitude with the sickle-cell trait.
The Steelers don't figure to be a chic AFC title pick next season. Too old, some will say. If the Bengals make a few offseason additions and retain coordinators Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer, some are going to pencil Pittsburgh in for third place in the AFC North behind Baltimore and Cincinnati. I can see it now.
And I understand it. The instinct is to call the Steelers' yesterday's news. And that could be the case. But I won't say it first. Let's see how they draft. Let's see if some of the young defenders blossom. Let's see if Roethlisberger plays at an MVP level, which I believe he's capable of doing.
To me, Sunday was just the end of a season, not the end of an era for the Steelers.
They do have the quarterback position capably filled, after all.