Home Pittsburgh Sports Steelers On the Fly: Steelers transitioning from old to new

On the Fly: Steelers transitioning from old to new

As the clock hit zero in a playoff loss to the underdog Denver Broncos, the Pittsburgh Steelers put the finishing touches on their 2011 season, a year-long campaign that saw the team post a 12-4 regular season mark despite a rash of injuries on both sides of the ball.

Even taking into account the lack of healthy bodies, there was something off about the team all season. The Steelers flashed their dominance, but failed to sustain it like they had in past seasons.

What’s more is that the core of the team—a group that has been at the forefront of Pittsburgh football for the last half-decade or more—began to fizzle out.

Hines Ward went from the top dog to a fourth option in the passing game. Aaron Smith continued a trend of injuries that has only worsened as he ages. Chris Hoke, a vocal leader on the defensive line, retired after the completion of an injury-shortened 11th season.

Make no mistake, the window of opportunity for the old guard has essentially closed.

Other NFL teams have had to deal with the closing window. For a majority of franchises, the team moves on to a rebuild, jettisoning the remaining veterans while making wholesale changes to become what is essentially a brand new team.

Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.

Yet what the Steelers are trying to do is something few teams can pull off. There will be no rebuild. Instead, Pittsburgh is reloading – with 2011 serving as a launching point in a transition from the old guard to younger talent.

Ward, Smith and Hoke are the first of a group of veterans that will fade into the background in the next season or two. As the old core exits, the team will be entrusted to a handful of young players that figure to be at the center of a revamped Pittsburgh Steelers football club.

Recent draftees and current-Pro-Bowlers Maurkice Pouncey and Mike Wallace figure to be the most important building blocks on offense. Defensively, the team could have future leaders at every level of the defense – Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward up front, LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons at linebacker, and the sophomore duo of Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen on the back end.

The beautiful thing is that the Steelers could do all this reloading all while remaining competitive and rattling off playoff appearances.
photo by Chuck LeClaire
The blueprint for that already exists, and the Green Bay Packers are the most current example of what the Steelers will be able to do. In fact, the two teams’ situations are eerily similar.

In the last few seasons, Packers’ stalwart Donald Driver has been supplanted by a trio of young receivers: Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and James Jones. Two of them—Jennings and  Nelson—have already established themselves as excellent receivers.

That sounds a lot like what’s happening in Pittsburgh, where Hines Ward has faded in favor of Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Two of those players—Wallace and Brown—represented the Steelers in the 2011 Pro Bowl.

Defensively, the Packers had veteran leadership in the secondary (Charles Woodson, Al Harris), at linebacker (Nick Barnett), and on the defensive line (Aaron Kampman). Only Woodson remains with the team today.

Nowadays, the defense is led by a fierce young pass rusher (Clay Matthews Jr.) and is getting major contributions from younger talent at every level of the defense.

That’s very similar to what’s happening for the Steelers, who have been injecting youth into the defense around a few veterans who are still playing at a high level.

Of course, there is one difference between the two examples, and that difference is at the quarterback position. One of the keys in the Packers reloading process was a switch from Brett Favre—a former face of the franchise—to quarterback-in-waiting Aaron Rodgers.

The Steelers won’t be making a personnel change behind center. Ben Roethlisberger will serve as a steadying hand to bridge the gap during the team’s transition phase.

However, the team’s franchise quarterback could still undergo a change as he crosses into his thirties. Team president Art Rooney II expressed after this past season that he’d like to see Big Ben tweak his game to one where he takes less sacks and passes with more efficiency – changes that can both extend Ben’s career and help improve the Steelers’ 21st-ranked offense.

To that end, the team parted ways with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who guided the offense during two trips to the Super Bowl. The new coordinator will be charged with helping Roethlisberger tweak his game in order to capitalize on the potential of Pittsburgh’s new offensive talent.

That 2011 season where the Steelers went 12-4 but flamed out in the playoffs? It looks awfully nice if you consider that Pittsburgh was essentially reloading on the fly.

photo by Chuck LeClaireThat transition will continue in 2012, and the Steelers will figure to be the favorites to win the AFC North anyways.

When the dust settles, Pittsburghers will be looking at a roster full of fresh faces taking charge on the football field. Pittsburgh will have gone from elite to very good to elite once again without much of the league noticing.

And in that regard, they’ll essentially be the same old Steelers.

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