One year after a winless August led to an 0-4 start to the regular season, are the Pittsburgh Steelers any better off?
Yes, the Steelers did manage to earn a victory this presesaon, for whatever that’s worth. But after the Pittsburgh backups struggled through a 10-0 loss to Carolina on Thursday at Heinz Field, we’re left to wonder how much progress this franchise has really made.
Although it’s true that a team’s growth continues throughout the course of a season, Steelers fans can be excused for their concern. Following back-to-back years of .500 football, any signs of the status quo are alarming.
With the exception of an eye-opening six-catch performance from wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, there’s not much to be garnered from the preseason finale against the Panthers. Oh, and Brad Wing kept his kicking leg limber with nine punts.
However, if we step back and look at the exhibition season on the whole, there are reasons for both optimism and pessimism.
On the plus side? Ben Roethlisberger and the offense figure to be unchained and moving at a fast pace. Receivers Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton still have some developing to do – and who knows what will become of the legal troubles for Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount – but the Steelers have some legitimate weapons and won’t be easy to prepare for.
Also positive: the defense is certainly younger, faster and more athletic. On the other hand, the confusion and missed assignments that accompany inexperience won’t go away overnight. The Steelers have had a difficult time getting off the field in the preseason, no matter whether they were facing the explosive Eagles or the lackluster Bills.
In the end, the most significant determining factor for the Steelers will be health. The effective depth of the organization still isn’t good enough to cover for injuries like the Maurkice Pouncey disaster from last September, although the same could be said for many NFL teams.
2014 will likely come down to “ifs.” If marquee players can stay on the field, if the youngsters can get up to speed, if the special teams are at least adequate, the Steelers have a real shot at taking a vulnerable AFC North.
On the other hand, they could be in for another autumn of treading water if one of several variables heads in the wrong direction. At this stage of the game, the Steelers need to show something in the regular season before we believe it.
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