When the game clock hit triple zeroes and Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks began their celebration following their blowout victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers can officially turn their attention to next season, although many already turned that page after another 8-8 campaign.
Coming off back-to-back mediocre campaigns, one has to ask themselves if the Steelers are even close to replicating the success that the Seahawks just experienced.
Every year most Steelers fans enter training camp with expectations of winning a seventh Super Bowl, but when Mike Tomlin’s team reports to Latrobe in July, is another Super Bowl appearance within reach?
On the surface that answer has to be no.
Unlike the Seahawks and Broncos – or even the New England Patriots or San Francisco 49ers, who both reached their respective conference championship games – this Steelers team likely has a long way to go to get back among the elite teams in the NFL.
Anytime you enter a season with Ben Roethlisberger under center, you have a chance to win the Lombardi Trophy, so there is hope among Steelers fans.
Add to that the emergence of rookie running back Le’Veon Bell and an improving offensive line and the Steelers offense has the opportunity to be one of the best in the NFL.
That statement especially rings true if Kevin Colbert and company can add a weapon or two on the offensive side of the football for Roethlisberger this offseason, with both Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery slated to become unrestricted free agents.
No, the offense is not the problem and won’t hold this Steelers team back.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said on the defensive side of the football.
We have seen what a top-notch defense has done for the Steelers in years past and what having the best defense in football did for the Seahawks this season.
Until the Steelers can successfully rebuild that unit into a dominant one, it’s going to be really tough to consider them Super Bowl contenders.
The problem is that upgrading the defense isn’t a quick fix as it could take a couple of years to get the proper pieces.
The good news is that the Steelers defense is still a good one, although it is far from a Super Bowl-contending unit.
Colbert has holes to fill everywhere and unlike the Seahawks, who financially could afford to add difference-makers such as Cliff Avril and Percy Harvin last offseason, the Steelers aren’t in a position where they can add those types of impact players due to salary-cap issues.
The defensive line needs upgraded badly, with nose tackle Steve McLendon coming off a disappointing season and defensive ends Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood entering free agency. The linebacking core also could use an upgrade with LaMarr Woodley coming off another disappointing campaign and Jason Worilds entering free agency.
The secondary needs a good bit of attention with Ryan Clark likely gone and both Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor getting up there in age as well. Throw in the fact that both Cortez Allen and Cameron Heyward will be free agents after next season and the Steelers’ defense needs a lot of help.
Many people will point to the draft, but that is another difference between the Steelers and Seahawks.
While Seahawks general manager John Schneider has done well in the draft in the previous four years, especially in the late rounds, Colbert has not.
Since the Schneider-Pete Carroll era began in 2010, they have had a plan and executed it to perfection. Can the same be said about the Steelers?
Together, Schneider and Carroll have formed an unusual approach to signing, drafting and trading for players. In their first season together, they made an astounding 284 player transactions.
Just a brief example of the success that duo has had together:
Linebacker Malcolm Smith, a seventh-round pick, was named the MVP as part of a defense that featured fifth-rounders Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman playing major roles. Defensive ends Avril and Michael Bennett were both value signings as free agents that paid off in major ways.
Wide receivers Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse were both undrafted and both scored touchdowns in the second half. Those touchdowns were thrown by Wilson, drafted in the third round and given the starting job from the get-go. That was followed an electrifying 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Harvin, who also had two big runs in the first half, making the trade for him look pretty good even after Harvin missed all but three games this season.
Running back Marshawn Lynch was also acquired in a trade, and by now you’ve likely gotten the point about how much success Schneider has found on all fronts when it comes to personnel.
Another thing that shouldn’t be overlooked is the special teams’ factor. We saw the impact the return game has made in the past two Super Bowls and that is an area the Steelers are continually lacking.
While the Steelers haven’t exactly been in the rebuilding mode that the Seahawks were, it just goes to show how great personnel decisions can go a long way into building a Super Bowl-caliber team and the major role a competent GM can play.
That’s not to take anything away from Colbert but you can make the case that the Steelers are in a rebuilding mode now and need to follow a similar course of action. With their limited cap space and not-so-successful recent draft history, there is nothing about the current regime that should give fans the confidence that the Steelers are a one-year fix.
This process is likely a two- or three-year job. There’s really not much the Steelers front office can do this year to plug all of the holes that need filled.
It didn’t happen overnight in Seattle; however, the Seahawks have laid down the blueprint for how things are done correctly.
It may be two years or so before the Steelers can call themselves legitimate Super Bowl contenders once again, but if they go about the process in the right way, they can get back to that status in that time frame.
If they don’t, they could find themselves watching the Super Bowl at home for a long time to come.