After coming within a game-winning drive in the final minutes from winning their third Lombardi Trophy in six seasons, the Steelers again had high expectations heading into 2011.
And as the regular season wound down, Mike Tomlin's crew were once more one of the favourites in the AFC, winning 10 of their last 12 games. But the wheels fell off in their wildcard playoff game with the Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncos, who stunned the Steelers in overtime.
Despite the upset, Pittsburgh's defence again excelled and was one of the top units in the league. The offence featured two 1,000-yard receivers, but struggled to protect Ben Roethlisberger, and at times had trouble running the ball.
Important Additions: TE Leonard Pope, G David DeCastro, T Mike Adams.
Important Losses: WR Hines Ward, DE Aaron Smith, LB James Farrior, NT Chris Hoke, DB William Gay.
Reasons To Believe
1. Defensive Dominance - Returning all but two starters, the Steelers defence is once again primed to be one of the most feared units in football. Despite playing only 21 of 32 regular season games, defensive standouts James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley still combined for 18 sacks. A full from season from their rush linebackers, combined with strong seasons from their core performers, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel will leave AFC offenses battered and bruised after games with the black and gold.
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2. Pass Catchers - Antonio Brown's breakout 2011 season gives the Steelers two dynamic weapons who line up outside the hash marks. Establishing himself late in the year as Roethlisberger's go-to target, the third-year receiver's emergence will soften the blow left by the training camp holdout of Pro Bowler Mike Wallace. Wallace finally reported to the team less than two weeks before the start of the season but until he gets caught up to pace with new coordinator Todd Haley's offence, Roethlisberger will rely heavily on Brown, reliable tight end Heath Miller and third receiver, Emmanuel Sanders. Once Wallace gets up to speed, Pittsburgh's passing game has the potential to be one of the most prolific in the AFC.
3. Smart Coaching - Since Mike Tomlin's arrival on the scene in 2007, the Steelers have posted a 55-25 regular season record and reached two Super Bowls. Tomlin's hard-nosed, defence-first approach has been consistent since his first day on the job. With the help of long-time defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, Tomlin has gotten the entire roster to buy into his philosophy and the veteran leaders within the Pittsburgh locker room – whom Tomlin has built a solid relationship with -- are there to make sure that continues.
Reasons To Doubt
1. Runaway - After struggling to run the ball on a consistent basis, the Steelers decided it was time for a change. Bruce Arians was fired and former Kansas City Chiefs run-first head coach, Haley was brought in with the hope Pittsburgh would return to the smashmouth-style of football favoured by president, Art Rooney II. That task may prove difficult with the Steelers backfield looking like a MASH unit. Last year's starter, Rashard Mendenhall is expected to miss the season's first month after surgery and his replacement, Isaac Redman has battled injuries throughout training camp. If the team is forced to start third string back, Jonathan Dwyer – who has also struggled to stay healthy in camp – the offence will again lack balance and will be hard-pressed to score points against the better defences in the AFC.
2. Downright Offensive Line - Using their first two draft picks to provide Roethlisberger some protection was a necessity after the Steelers star quarterback endured another injury-plagued season. The unit has the potential to be solid with full seasons from the likes of Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert, and Willie Colon, but after a season in which Pittsburgh went through a league-high 25 different line combinations, that may be an unrealistic expectation. If the Steelers fail to keep Big Ben healthy, playoff success will be difficult to achieve.
3. Making Adjustments - Initially, the transition from Arians to Haley was not received well by Roethlisberger, who wasn't shy in hiding his unhappiness for the move. He has softened his stance in camp, but said he is not yet fully comfortable with Haley's complicated terminology and thick playbook. If it takes time for Roethlisberger and the sometimes volatile Haley to get on the same page, the Steelers may again start off the regular season slowly and then face the challenge of climbing an uphill battle to get back in the AFC playoff race.
What to Expect
Barring a series of devastating injuries to their core players, it's hard to envision Tomlin's squad not posting their sixth straight winning season. The defensive core remains largely intact and the offence is young and should only get better. If the Steelers are clicking on all cylinders come playoff time, they should be one of the favourites to appear in their fourth Super Bowl in eight seasons.