Pittsburgh Steelers  

 

Exit Interview: Aging Steelers due for big offseason turnover

With the 2011 season in the rearview mirror for many teams, it's time for NFL.com's annual "Exit Interviews," a chance to review the ups and downs of each team's past season and spin it forward.

2011 in a Nutshell: The Steelers were a 12-4 team that was essentially damaged goods by the time the playoffs arrived. Despite another strong regular season, injuries and mental mistakes (like six penalties Sunday) ultimately cost this team both the AFC North and the wild-card game in Denver.

What Went Right: Love him or hate him, Ben Roethlisberger was mostly right. Again. The franchise quarterback threw for over 4,000 yards and compiled a 90.1 passer rating, despite nagging injuries, a porous offensive line and a largely ineffective running game. One thing that greatly assisted Roethlisberger, though, was the development of Antonio Brown. In just two seasons, Brown's gone from little-used target to playoff hero to certifiable threat as the Steelers' second wide receiver. Mike Wallace and Brown make up the AFC's most formidable wideout tandem.

Per usual, the defense was solid. In fact, Dick LeBeau's unit was ranked first in the NFL. While it didn't quite set as dominant a tone as the 2008 installment, the Steelers defense is what kept this team in games when Rashard Mendenhall was dancing too much and Roethlisberger was hobbled. Kudos to the secondary, which was thought to be a weakness coming into the season. Forget the Demaryius Thomas play -- re-signing Ike Taylor was absolutely the right move.

What Went Not So Right: That same defense. Despite statistical success, age and injuries really hurt this unit. The Steelers just couldn't get the stops when they really needed them. Aaron Smith was one of the most overlooked personnel losses in the NFL this season. Pittsburgh sorely missed his containment from the end, as well as his leadership. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley were two significant members of the Steelers' walking wounded, missing 11 games between them. Speaking of injuries, Roethlisberger's high ankle sprain made the job much easier for the Denver pass rush.

Meanwhile, the lackluster play of Pittsburgh's offensive line greatly contributed to the hit-or-miss nature of the offense as a whole.

Offseason Crystal Ball: Look for the Steelers to part ways with a lot of familiar faces, as Pittsburgh is projected to be about $20 million over the $125 million salary cap. Smith, Hines Ward, James Farrior, Jonathan Scott, Chris Hoke, and Casey Hampton could all be gone.

It'll be interesting to see what happens with Harrison, who is due over $5 million. The former NFL Defensive Player of the Year turns 34 in May. He's been heavily penalized, fined and suspended, and might not have that many good years left. That said, if the Steelers can get rid of other albatross contracts, they'll hold on to Harrison for another year before turning to Jason Worilds or someone else. Worilds' midseason thigh injury didn't give the club a long enough look to be fully comfortable letting go of Harrison.

Offensively, the biggest offseason question mark lies in the backfield. Mendenhall will not be ready for opening day. Isaac Redman was good in spots, but is he the guy? Probably not. We may be looking at a running back-by-committee situation. One dark-horse candidate: Baron Batch, who looked promising last summer before suffering a bad knee injury and missing his entire rookie season.

Team Needs and Draft: Depending on who gets cut, depth at defensive line is very important. Nose tackle is a huge issue, given Hampton's knee injury. Getting a running back in the early rounds would not be the worst thing in the world, judging by the lack of confidence the club has in Mendenhall. Safety is an area of concern, given the age of starters Ryan Clark (32) and Troy Polamalu (31 in April).

Yet, if I'm working in Pittsburgh's front office, I'm staring at offensive guard all day long. Chris Kemoeatu isn't exactly the second coming of Larry Allen (and actually could be released). Doug Legursky is not the answer.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL

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