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2013 Pittsburgh Steelers Team Preview: Steelers Turn To Bell to Revive Rushing Attack

Rick Kinigson

Rick Kinigson

Rick Kinigson writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

State of the Franchise

Heading into last season the pattern was clear, and Pittsburgh fans should have seen it coming. Just as they did in 2003, 2006 and 2009, the Steelers followed up back-to-back playoff seasons with an uninspired performance that kept them out of the 2012 playoffs.

Under new coordinator Todd Haley, the Steelers offense started the season strong. Through the first eight games, QB Ben Roethlisberger had thrown for over 2,200 yards with 16 touchdowns and only four interceptions. The team was 5-3, just one game behind the Ravens, and with five of their remaining games at Heinz Field, where they had won 13 of their last 14 contests, things seemed to be headed in a positive direction for the Steelers.

But Pittsburgh never could get a consistent running game going, and the offense completely sputtered when Roethlisberger was sidelined with rib and shoulder injuries. Big Ben missed a critical three-game stretch, including two tilts against Baltimore, then threw four interceptions in his first three games back. The Steelers finished the season with a disappointing 8-8 record.

Pittsburgh's failures hardly rest solely on Roethlisberger, who finished 2012 with the league's seventh-best QB rating of 97.0. The team's running game ranked 26th in yards per game (96.1) and 28th in yards per carry (3.7). Rashard Mendenhall has since moved on to Arizona, leaving Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and second-round draft pick Le'Veon Bell to get the ground game back on track in 2013. But they'll have to do it behind a dreadful and oft-injured offensive line that the team tried to improve by drafting G David DeCastro and OT Mike Adams with its first two picks last year. Unfortunately, DeCastro injured his knee in the preseason and only played the final three games, while Adams started six games, but also missed time due to knee and ankle injuries.

They say bad things happen in threes, and the Steelers' 2012 draft was no exception when third-round pick LB Sean Spence tore his ACL in the preseason. In fact, the draft has not been kind to the Steelers over the past five years, which has only been exacerbated by the team not having the money to aggressively pursue free agents. Moreover, they've lacked the depth to offset critical injuries to key players, and GM Kevin Colbert hopes to change that pattern in 2013 with the first-round selection of Jarvis Jones, although the linebacker has medical concerns (spinal stenosis) of his own.

The biggest changes may need to come with the coaching staff. The Steelers loathe replacing their head coach; they've had just three in the past 45 years, but another poor season could cost Mike Tomlin his job.

Offseason Moves

KEY ACQUISITIONS

Jarvis Jones - LB, Georgia
(Round 1, 17th overall)
Can deliver bone-shattering tackles and rush the passer, helping fill the void left by James Harrison's departure.

Le'Veon Bell - RB, Michigan State
(Round 2, 48th overall)
Surprisingly agile for his size and powerful enough to pick up extra yards after contact.

Markus Wheaton - WR, Oregon State
(Round 3, 79th overall)
A downfield target who has the ability to stretch defenses with his speed.

BRUCE GRADKOWSKI- QB, BENGALS
Signed to back up Ben Roethlisberger, who is no stranger to injuries.

KEY LOSSES

Mike Wallace - WR, Dolphins
How do you replace a guy who has averaged 1,011 yards and eight touchdowns a season while missing just one game in his career?

James Harrison - LB, Bengals
Despite his age and injuries, he led the Steelers in sacks five of the last six seasons.

Rashard Mendenhall - RB, Cardinals
A full season removed from his ACL tear, he is now reunited with former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.

Keenan Lewis - CB, Saints
Doesn't get the press Troy Polamalu does, but quietly broke up 23 passes in 2012

Team Notes

CAN ANYONE BE LIKE MIKE?

For the past six years, the Steelers have been a pass-first team, relying on a talented group of receivers including Mike Wallace, Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes. But now “60 Minutes” has become the Sixty Million Dollar Man in Miami, while Ward and Holmes have been replaced by Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Neither has shown the consistency to be QB Ben Roethlisberger's go-to guy thus far, but they'll need to step up in 2013. Meanwhile, the team must temper its expectations for third-round pick Markus Wheaton and recognize that neither Plaxico Burress nor Jerricho Cotchery can be No. 1 receivers anymore. Moreover, TE Heath Miller, who posted his best season last year, is recovering from surgery after suffering tears in his ACL, PCL and MCL in Week 16.

KEEPING THE CURTAIN STEEL

The 2012 Steelers set a new record for the most games decided on the last play, with six. It's hard to win without takeaways and the Steelers had just 20 on the season. Only seven teams had fewer and just one of those teams had a winning record. The defense also failed to pressure opposing quarterbacks, recording just 37 sacks all season. Pittsburgh has averaged a meager 36 sacks over the past two years after posting an incredible 49 sacks per season average over the previous three. Although defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau did a decent job overcoming injuries to several key players, age started to catch up with the Pittsburgh defense. With that in mind, the team selected five defensive players in the draft, most notably LB Jarvis Jones with the 17th pick overall. In Jones, who recorded 28 sacks over the last two seasons with Georgia, Pittsburgh gets the most accomplished pass rusher in the draft.
 
CLEAR AS A BELL

After finishing the 2012 campaign with the 26th ranked rushing offense, Pittsburgh made a huge statement by selecting Le'Veon Bell with the 48th overall pick in the draft. That is the earliest the Steelers have drafted a running back since his predecessor, Rashard Mendenhall was taken 23rd overall in 2008. Bell ran for 3,346 yards (4.99 YPC) and scored 33 touchdowns in three seasons with Michigan State. He also caught 78 passes for 531 yards and a score, and received the 2012 CFPA Elite Running Back Trophy. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley believes that Bell could give the Steelers a running back reminiscent of Jerome Bettis who can take some of the pressure off Roethlisberger. Though Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and LaRod Stephens-Howling are also in the team's backfield mix, Bell could have an impact rookie season, given that he can catch passes well enough to be a three-down back for the Steelers.

Value Meter

Rising: Emmanuel Sanders should benefit the most from Mike Wallace's departure. Led the team in yards per catch (14.2), as well as big plays (11 of his 44 receptions were 20+ yards) last season.

Declining: Ben Roethlisberger will be hard-pressed to repeat his 26:8 TD:INT mark, and a June knee scope is a reminder of the physical punishment he continues to absorb.

Sleeper: Le'Veon Bell is a big-bodied back, who has enough pass-catching skills to emerge as an every-down option out of the gate.

Supersleeper: Matt Spaeth returns after two seasons in Chicago. He's notched eight touchdowns on 49 career receptions and could see increased targets if Heath Miller misses significant time.

IDP Watch

Lawrence Timmons - LB
Led the team in sacks and turnovers, and scored its lone defensive touchdown.

Ryan Clark - S
Career-best 102 tackles, two interceptions and a fumble recovery; plus no Denver road game in 2013.

Jason Worilds - LB
Has increased sack total each of his three years in the league and now gets a chance to start.

TEAM DEFENSE

RotoWire Rank: 6