Nov 10, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward (97) and defensive end Brett Keisel (99) react after Heyward registered a sack against the Buffalo Bills during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. The Pittsburgh Steelers won 23-10. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Steelers: Several Big Decisions Loom After Disappointing Season


8-8: A perfect numerical value to describe the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2013 season.

Break it down a little more, and it looks like 2-6 first half then a 6-2 finish.

The improved effort fell short of being useful in 2013, yet the game film will be resourceful for 2014 – effective at the start of free agency. The Steelers have 21 free agents and a couple large contracts to evaluate. These are their most important decisions of the offseason:

Troy Polamalu: We went from thinking Troy was washed up to begging him to stay in Pittsburgh. He played linebacker, safety and on special teams in all 16 games. His 69 tackles were third-best on the team and he led the team in turnovers: five forced fumbles and one interception. He has one year left on his contract for a payout of just over $10 million. The Steelers should consider restructuring to a two-year deal. Irregardless, he is worth the money he is set to collect.

Cam Heyward and Jason Worilds: They went from draft busts to becoming the defense’s top playmakers after winning starting roles. They had 13 of the team’s 34 total sacks. The Steelers discovered Worilds is a good left outside linebacker — and so is high-priced LaMarr Woodley. The Steelers can only play, and pay, one of them. Worilds could be cheaper, even with a one-year franchise tag.

Ryan Clark: The Steelers traded their third-round 2014 draft pick to Cleveland in order to land safety Shamarko Thomas. Thomas will be starting at a safety position next season signaling the end of the ride for Clark. He should have been MVP in 2013. Heinz Field is his home even no matter what uniform he wears, or what TV studio he is working for.

Emmanuel Sanders: He drops balls at critical times – too many to pay him the top money he is expecting in free agency. Looking back, it was the smart idea to match the deal from New England; Sanders was the Steelers’ best No. 2 receiver option as Plaxico Burress went to injured reserve. Rookie third-rounder Markus Wheaton kept breaking fingers. Derek Moye got very few opportunities. But Sanders was not as valuable as veteran slot receiver, Jerricho Cotchery.

Cotchery had four more touchdowns than Sanders, easily one of the biggest surprises of the season. He is a pure slot receiver and likely an affordable free agent. If the Steelers draft a tall receiver early, the battle will be on between Cotchery and Wheaton for the slot.

Brett Keisel: He’s face and beard of the Steel City. His possible final game was one for the ages: one sack, one forced fumble, three hurries, three tackles. Unfortunately, he played just over eight games while dealing with injuries. If he wants one more season in Pittsburgh, he is worth a roster spot. His offer and playing time might have taken a hit with the emergence of the next two on the list.

Ziggy Hood and Al Woods: They saw increased playing time with the injuries to Keisel and Steve McLendon. Hood had lost his starting job to Heyward but, like Worilds, may have been another Steeler who had been playing out of position. While covering for Keisel on the opposite side, Hood was more effective. He worked well with Heyward.

Woods also has the ability to get in backfield. Like McLendon, he can play end or nose. Have the Steelers seen enough of either player to ignore a nose tackle in the draft? It’s hard to tell with the way the defense juggled linebackers this season.

While a few of the stars fell short in performance (Woodley and Clark), plenty of younger players went from question marks to budding stars this season. It’s the only positive from another playoff-less season.

Tags: Cameron Heyward Emmanuel Sanders Jason Worilds LaMarr Woodley Pittsburgh Steelers Ryan Clark Steve McLendon Troy Polamalu Ziggy Hood

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