State of the Steelers & Looking Forward to The 2013 Draft

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“Will the Steelers stay competitive minus Big Ben?”

As sick as it has made me to answer the aforementioned question, I have uttered the same thing below to any and all friendly queries on the matter after Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger exited last Monday’s game:

“No Ben, No Chance.”

With Roethlisberger sidelined due to his Rib/Shoulder injuries, the Steelers must press on without their Pro Bowl Quarterback for an extended period of time.  While I tip my cap to both Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich as veteran spot-starting backups, they are still backups, and I for one am skeptical as to how effective they can ultimately play over a month-plus long period.

For those of you blindly riding the “Defense Will Save The Day” Bandwagon, take a time machine back to 2008 and grab yourself a refill of “LeBeau Altar Worshiping Kool-aid” while your at it.  The unit is not only banged up (Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, etc..), but has also collectively played at a mediocre and sometimes sub-par level all season long.  You readers are entitled to your own opinions, but I have been thoroughly unimpressed with a unit that has blown 4th Quarter leads in Five of their last Nine games, lost to vaunted “juggernauts” like Oakland and Tennessee, and should have rightfully lost to Philadelphia and Kansas City after they blew 4th Quarter leads.

Anyways, enough of me being a “Negative Nancy,” it is time to occupy our minds’ with something a bit more positive “Steeler Nation:” The 2013 N.F.L. Draft.  Thus, I thought that it would be a good idea to not only discuss a few positional areas with problems on the Steelers’ roster, but also explain why the Front Office might want to upgrade them when the Draft rolls around next April.

Ryan Clark misses Tony Moeaki after Keenan Lewis bit hard on a play-action fake. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

Areas of Need (In No Particular Order)

Safety (Free & Strong)

Writing about the state of the Safety positions on the Steelers’ roster brings me great pain at this moment as I have been such a big Troy Polamalu fan over the last decade.  It has been an utter treat to have watched the wild-haired whirling-dervish from Southern Cal establish himself as the best Strong Safety in the League ever since he became a starter during the 2004 season.  Sadly for the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the year and all of us fans, his body has begun to betray him in recent years, and he has missed 28 games since the 2006 season due to an assortment of injuries.  Polamalu has only participated in 2 games so far this year due to his calf problem, and at 31 years old it might finally be the time that the prime of #43’s career is at its end.

The thought of replacing a former Hall of Famer in the form of Polamalu is scary enough to consider right now.  But in addition to Polamalu’s body beginning to fail him, starting Free Safety Ryan Clark is not what one would call “healthy” either.  Although he made his first Pro Bowl last season, the 33 year-old the hard-hitting Clark has sustained two concussions over the last three weeks.  Concussions aside, Clark will also be a Free Agent after the 2013 regular season ends and I would be shocked if the Steelers made a competitive offer to a soon to be 35 year-old Free Safety who has been targeted by the League for penalty purposes, has concussion issues, and has definitely lost a step or two in pass-coverage over the last two seasons.

Unfortunately for the Steelers, they do not have much of an established and stable “transition plan” in place to replace Polamalu and Clark when those sad days come.  Currently behind #43 and #25 on the depth chart is their top backup Ryan Mundy.  And I think I can speak for most if not all of “Steeler Nation” when I say that the soon to be Unrestricted Free Agent has been little more than a seldom-used and inconsistent penalty-machine when he has been allowed to play on Defense over the last few seasons.  Mundy’s play has caused him to be usurped by veteran Special Teamer Will Allen, who will also be an Unrestricted Free Agent after this season.

While I do have hope that Rookie and current Special Teamer Robert Golden can develop into a solid option in Nickel & Dime sub-Defensive packages (he was a Cornerback and Safety at Arizona) in the coming seasons, him and Da’mon Cromartie-Smith are still strictly Special Teams players and years away from competing for starting spots.  Thus, they will likely have to fight to keep their roster/Practice Squad spots over the coming years, especially if more competition comes to Latrobe via the Draft process.

Linebacker (Inside & Outside)

First of all, let me state that Lawrence Timmons has been an absolute beast over the last two months and seems to have returned to his solid play at the “Mack” position after he spent significant time in 2011 on the Outside due to injuries.  Timmons has the Weakside Inside position on lock-down for the foreseeable future and is one of the rising stars of the unit.  Outside of Timmons though is where things get a tad murky at the Inside Linebacker position when the future is considered.

Next to Timmons is veteran Larry Foote, who has done a fantastic job manning the “Buck” position over the first half of the year.  Larry is tied for the team lead in Sacks (3.0), leads the team in Tackles (64), and Forced (2) and Recovered (2) Fumbles as well.  Foote however will be 33 next year and will also be an Unrestricted Free Agent once the season ends.  I for one would actually like to see Foote brought back for another season or two as he has been one Pittsburgh’s few consistent Defensive players this season in terms of his performance.  The question however will be whether or not Colbert & Co. decide to pony up the dough to bring Larry back.  To me the situation is a “no-brainer” because the Steelers have zero depth behind Timmons and Foote on the Inside.

Backup Stevenson Sylvester has started only one game since he came into the League in 2010, has made his only significant contributions on Special Teams, has missed 5 games already this season with a knee injury, is Questionable for Sunday’s game with a Hamstring injury, and will be a Restricted Free Agent once this season ends.  The Steelers appeared to have found an answer in Rookie Sean Spence after they drafted him in the 3rd Round last April.  Spence however suffered a horrific knee injury in the preseason against Carolina (ACL, LCL, Dislocated Knee Cap), and I would be surprised if he A) returned to form in 2013 and/or B) returned to form at all after how awful his knee was mangled.

As lowly and unfortunate as the depth at the Inside Linebacker spots appears to be for Pittsburgh, significant problems are also looming on the Outside too.  Like Polamalu, it really breaks my heart to see a player like James Harrison struggle to return to form (25 Tackles and only 1.0 Sack this season) from injury at his age (34 years old).  In spite of what the mainstream media and opposing fans will say, The 2008 Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl XLIII hero is an inspiration to any and all Undrafted Free Agents entering the League.  In spite of Commissioner Roger Goodell’s crusade to eliminate hard-nosed football and “wash his and the N.F.L.’s hands” of future lawsuits, Harrison is a beacon of hope for any and all UDFA’s looking to make their marks’ on the League by making the most of their talent with toughness and nastiness.  Harrison however has been dealing with back and knee injuries over the last couple of seasons, and will be due $6.5 and $7.5 million dollar base salaries over the next two years.  While the Steelers could restructure, we might have to come to grips as fans that #92’s days as a Steeler could be numbered.

At the other Outside Linebacker position, starter LaMarr Woodley has not been without some problems of his own.  Although Woodley played out of his mind during a four game stretch last year, the $61.5 million dollar investment has only appeared in 18 games over the last season and a half and has been held without a Sack and neutralized in 8 of the 18.  Compounding Woodley’s issues have been hamstring injuries which have limited the Pro Bowler.  These injuries have made him a limited factor as a pass rusher and crushed his ability to set the edge in the running game against Offensive Tackles, a trait which was put on display for the world to see in the Kansas City game.  While some might not agree with me, I believe Woodley is nearing the end of his prime production years.  At 28, with nagging hamstrings, and some apparent problems with weight and complacency, who really knows how big the window is left for Woodley in terms of productivity as a pass rusher.  I must also add that some recent examples of Steelers’ Outside Linebackers beginning to lose statistical effectiveness and/or health as pass-rushers in the late 20’s and early 30’s is evident in the examples of Clark Haggans, Joey Porter, Jason Gildon, and even Greg Lloyd.

And just like the Inside Linebackers, the Steelers have limited depth on the Outside as well.  Jason Worilds is tied for the team lead in Sacks (3.0), but has received limited opportunities over his three year career due to injuries (most recently a wrist) and the fact that Dick LeBeau would rather play two hobbled veterans over the less-experienced but younger and quicker Worilds.  It also does not help that Worilds will be an Unrestricted Free Agent after the 2013 season ends either.  Chris Carter, a 5th Round pick in 2011 and the other backup, started 3 games this season due to the injuries to Harrison and Worilds and only racked up 8 Tackles and 0.0 Sacks in his interim audition.  Carter just recently went to IR with an abdominal injury and will likely face an uphill climb to make next season’s roster if Undrafted Rookie Adrian Robinson can have another impressive Camp/Preseason or someone more talented is drafted.