The Steelers Know How To Evolve - By Christopher Stout
Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial
|Every offseason, the NFL reshuffles itself. Cuts are made. Restricted free agents are courted with offer sheets. Unrestricted free agents change teams. Trades happen. Draft picks are introduced to the roster and players retire. Every single year, there's a new NFL, and every season, each team experiences varying degrees of change.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are no different.
The Steelers lost some key contributors this offseason. Chris Hope, Antwaan Randle El and Kim Von Oelhoffen all split via free agency. When Jerome Bettis retired, the Steelers lost their short yardage specialist and an unquestioned leader in the locker room. The Steelers will deal with these absences just fine, because the Steelers know how to evolve.
Younger players will step up and fill the vacated roles. Free agent pick up Ryan Clark will provide short-term assistance in the defensive backfield opposite Troy Polamalu. Tyrone Carter and third-round draft pick Anthony Smith are also in the mix at safety. Smith had two picks in Pittsburgh's preseason loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Cowher praised the young player's performance after the game.
For all the excitement that Antwaan Randle El brought to the table, Pittsburgh can handle his departure from the passing game. Randel El caught a career-low 35 catches last year. He had just one touchdown reception in 16 regular season contests. His contributions as a punt returner and gadget play QB are what will be missed the most. Randle El scored two touchdowns off of punt returns last season (one was an 81-yard return against Detroit). Randle El played QB at Indiana, and in his four-year NFL career, he has completed 14 of 16 passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns. Last season, Randle El had a passer rating of 158.3, and he tossed a very memorable Super Bowl touchdown pass. On a trick reverse play known as "Fake-39 Toss X-Reverse Pass", Randle El hurled an incredible 43 yard pass to Hines Ward, effectively ending all hopes of a Seattle comeback.
Cedrick Wilson, Quincy Morgan and Nate Washington can contribute in the passing-catching department. (Wilson was the Steelers leading receiver in the AFC Wild Card and AFC Championship games). Draft picks Willie Reid and Santonio Holmes will provide additional depth at wide receiver and in the punt return game. For athletic QB gadget plays, the Steelers now have Omar Jacobs (although his few preseason snaps seem to indicate that Omar has a long way to go). Antwaan Randle El is an amazing all-in-one player who earned his free agent payday. It'll take multiple role players to fill his shoes, but the Steelers still have youth and talent that can replace him.
Brett Keisel has been a special teams standout and backup defensive end since 2000. When Kimo was getting signed by the Jets, the Steelers inked Keisel to a three-year extension. He and Travis Kirschke are more than capable of replacing Von Oelhoffen, a fixture of the Steelers defense for six years.
Jerome Bettis is both irreplaceable and pretty much already replaced. Hines Ward has said that many players will have to fill the locker room void left by Jerome's retirement. Ward, Big Ben, Farrior, Porter and Polamalu will all step up in the leadership department. At running back, the Steelers have speedy Willie Parker (who recently signed a 4-year contract worth $13.6 million), versatile Verron Haynes, a healthy Duce Staley and rookie Cedric Humes. With depth at the position, the Steelers will be just fine adapting to the loss of the Bus.
You hear a lot of talk about how the AFC North is so improved this year. The Browns made plenty of additions in the offseason, but they're still a rebuilding project. The Ravens picked up Steve McNair, and suddenly they're playoff contenders. The Bengals are solid, and they'll want to improve upon last year's disappointing home playoff loss to the Steelers (Kimo may no longer be with Pittsburgh, but when the Bengals play the Steelers, there will be bad blood on the field). Even with all the off-the-field arrests and Carson Palmer's rehab, the Bengals are still worrisome competition.
But the Steelers won the Super Bowl.
The team has a chip on it's shoulder and a bulls-eye on it's back. Pittsburgh has replacements to fill the gaps left by departed starters, and they're still a hungry team with depth, poise and a very physical style of play. When everyone talks about how good the rest of the AFC North has become, and when people bring up the fact that the Steelers didn't even win their division last year, remind them that the Steelers are still the same smash-mouth team that won four in a row to make the playoffs, and three straight road playoff games to get to the Super Bowl. Tell them that Big Ben has a 27-4 record as a starter. Tell these doubters that over the past two seasons, the Steelers have the best overall record in the NFL (26-6). Remind people that the Steelers are world champions because they're a stable organization that knows how to pick up players and when to let them go.
Even if this season proves to be Bill Cowher's last year as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team will still move on. Highly coveted offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt is well-positioned to take over if need be. The Wiz toyed with the idea of becoming the new head coach of the Oakland Raiders this offseason, but instead decided to stay with Pittsburgh. Should Cowher decide to call it quits, The Wiz has the respect, clout and football know-how needed to run the show. Know matter what happens to the roster or the coaching staff, the Steelers will remain perennial playoff contenders, because they're a team that knows how to evolve.