When Ben Roethlisberger took over two games into his rookie season the Pittsburgh Steelers they had little concern in terms of offensive leadership, even with a rookie quarterback. In front of Roethlisberger were All-pro linemen Jeff Hartings and Alan Faneca, behind him, at times, was Jerome Bettis, and out wide he had Hines Ward.
Over the past seven years, however, the Steelers have watched countless veterans leave and be replaced with youthful players. Now that the last of those leaders have left Roethlisberger finds himself as the most veteran starter on the offensive side of the ball for the Steelers. It will be up to him to be the emotional leader of the offense in 2013. Roethlisberger is prepping for the best year of his career already and is hoping he still has plenty of football ahead of him.
On the defensive side of the ball the Steelers have lost lone time leaders James Farrior, Aaron Smith, James Harrison and Casey Hampton all within the past two off-seasons. With Farrior a distant memory and Harrison now gone everyone is looking to LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons to help lead the Steelers defense in 2013. Timmons and Woodley had very opposite seasons in 2013.
Timmons has become one of the best defensive players that the Steelers have. As for Woodley he looked like the next dominant outside linebacker for the Steelers, but injuries have ruined his last two seasons and now he will look to put those issues behind him and get back to disrupting offenses as a pass rusher.
Ziggy Hood is entering his fifth NFL season and is hoping to finally turn the corner and become a solid replacement for Smith. Cameron Heyward, who like Hood was drafted in the first round, will see more time on the defensive line in 2013 according to reports. He has been stuck behind Brett Keisel so far in his career and will look to at least split time with him this upcoming season.
The Steelers are also hoping for some young contributors at nose tackle and corner with players such as Steve McLendon, Alameda Ta’amu, Curtis Brown and Terry Hawthorne. These players will look towards veterans for leadership and help on the field. Timmons and Woodley may not have been the leaders before, but in 2013 they will need to lead in the locker room and on the field.
Timmons played in every game, one of the few Steelers who were able to do this, and it may have been the best year of his career so far. Timmons is just entering the prime of his career and will look to continue to be the Steelers leader on the field, but he will also need to become a vocal leader in the locker room at this point in his career.
Roethlisberger was unhappy with the “forced retirement” of Bruce Arians last off-season and it was well documented. When Todd Haley took over there was concern that Roethlisberger would not buy into the short passing game. Roethlisberger did make some comments about the offense at times during the 2012 season and the biggest problem is that if the quarterback isn’t buying in then the players around him probably aren’t either.
Heading into the 2013 season the Steelers need Big-Ben to go all-in on Haley’s offense. What many don’t realize is that through the first nine weeks of the 2012 season Roethlisberger was considered an MVP candidate and was having one of the best seasons of his career. The short passing game was working well and the offense was performing at a high level even with the lack of a running game.
Haley’s offense was also keeping Roethlisberger from taking lots of hits. Through the first ten weeks of the 2012 season Roethlisberger was only sacks 18 times. Against the Kansas City Chiefs he was only hit once, but he happened to land on his throwing shoulder and suffered an injury that forced him to miss three straight games, which completely changed the outlook of the Steelers season.
After Roethlisberger’s injury the Steelers struggled and when he returned he was not the same. It was obvious that his shoulder injury was causing issues with his passing ability and those issues showed in his statistics. Through the first nine games of the season (including a partial game against the Kansas City Chiefs) Roethlisberger had thrown for 2287 yards, 17 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
It was the best start of his career and he was on pace to have one of the best years of his career. However, after injuring his should Roethlisberger was only able to play in four more games. In those games he threw nine touchdowns, which was impressive, but he also threw four interceptions matching the amount he’d thrown in his previous nine starts. Two of those interceptions may have cost the Steelers games (against Dallas and Cincinnati).
When it comes to Woodley 2012 was a second straight disappointing season. Before he injured his hamstring in 2011 he was on pace to be the defensive player of the year, but he hasn’t recovered since. Woodley’s 2012 season was once again plagued by injuries and questions about his off-season condition have erupted this off-season.
2013 will be an interesting year for the Steelers. They will be coming off an 8-8 season, their first non-winning season under Mike Tomlin, and they will also be without some veterans once again due to cuts that have been made this off-season. That means some leaders will have to step up and Roethlisberger, Timmons and Woodley are three guys that fit the bill. The other players that I’ll add to the list this off-season are Antonio Brown and Maurkice Pouncey.
When Wallace turned down a new deal with the Steelers last off-season they decided to turn their attention to Brown and lock him up long-term. In doing so Brown became the highest paid receiver on the team and was expected to play like it. However, Brown saw almost all of his stats decrease from the year before and he fumbled the ball four times in 2012 after not fumbling a single time in 2011. Two of those fumbles were lost fumbles and both may have cost the Steelers games.
One of those fumbles came in week 3 against the Oakland Raiders and the other against the Dallas Cowboys and both changed the momentum in the game. Had Brown not lost those two fumbles and if the Steelers had won both those games they would have finished 10-6. That would of put them in a three way tie for the division and they would have been AFC North Champions. Not to mention the fact that the actual AFC North Champions, the Baltimore Ravens, went on to win the Super Bowl.
As for Pouncey he now finds himself as one of the most experienced and oldest offensive lineman on the Steelers roster and he is only 23. The only player expected to start on the Steelers line in 2013 with more experience than Pouncey is Ramon Foster, who has played in 57 games compared to Pouncey’s 47. That experience and Pouncey’s three straight All-Pro team selections mean other players will be looking up to him for support.
Centers on the offensive line also call protections and it will be up to Pouncey to help the line gel as a unit and make sure things in the meeting room are going well. If he can help this line come together as a group they will be able to put together a better rushing game on offense in 2013 and help alleviate some of the pressure from Roethlisberger’s shoulders in the passing game.
When Roethlisberger entered the league he had Bettis and Ward to show him the way. Ward also helped groom Antonio Brown. Pouncey has had Max Starks on the line during his entire NFL career to this point. On defense Timmons and Woodley were groomed by Farrior and Harrison and Hood started his career behind Aaron Smith.
However, at this point all of those veterans are gone and Roethlisberger, Brown, Timmons, Woodley and Hood now find themselves as the veteran players that need to step up as leaders on and off-the-field. There ability to lead the team in the locker-room and on the field will have a major impact on whether or not the team can recover from a disappointing 8-8 season in 2012.