Where do the Steelers start their restoration project?

November 4, 2013 11:38 PM
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Let the reclamation project begin. But where to start?

At 2-6, the Steelers have little room to accomplish anything over the second half of the season except maybe to avoid a total meltdown and escape reaching the franchise's worst record since the 1970 NFL merger (5-11 in 1988).

Yet what tools are available to coach Mike Tomlin as he tries to avoid the bottom falling out? He made several changes a month ago. He can't change the quarterback, he already changed the running backs, he can't change the receivers or tight ends. He made one performance change in the offensive line and injuries continue to force his hand on others there.

He could bench one or both under-performing safeties and go with rookie Shamarko Thomas and/or veteran Will Allen, but he has little else at his disposal at that position. He already has benched young Cortez Allen at one cornerback in favor of veteran William Gay. He benched rookie Jarvis Jones to return to veteran Jason Worilds at outside linebacker, and he has little left at inside linebacker after Lawrence Timmons.

He benched former first-round draft choice Ziggy Hood in favor of Cameron Heyward, who by all accounts seems to be a bright spot at defensive end. The other backup defensive linemen include Al Woods and Hebron Fangupo.

Maybe Tomlin could bring in another punter to help get things back on track.

But the fact that he made this threat, "And those people who are lacking effort won't be playing," for virtually the second time in five games must mean he sees some lack of effort somewhere.

So what could be the repercussions from what may be shaping up as the worst record this franchise has seen since Chuck Noll's first team went 1-13 in 1969?

Let's take a look:

• Tomlin's job seemingly is safe because the Rooneys have shown overabundant patience with their coaches. Of Noll's final seven seasons, the team made the playoffs in only one. Bill Cowher's teams went three consecutive years (1998-2000) without a playoff berth and they then signed him to a contract extension.

• The plight of other coaches, including both coordinators, are not so set in black and gold. All are open to conjecture.

• More veterans are likely to be shown the door or not re-signed after the season, with even the venerable Troy Polamalu (and his $8.25 million salary in 2014) not immune. But younger players who were supposed to continue their great tradition on defense, such as Hood, also will go.

• General manager Kevin Colbert would seem to be safe, too, because he, like Tomlin, has built up strong equity. Colbert helped build two Super Bowl winners and three AFC championships. But their draft philosophy could come under more scrutiny and perhaps even go in a different direction. They might even want to look into reducing the amount of sway the coaching staff has in the drafting process, which is plenty now.

• Ben Roethlisberger, signed through 2015, is due a contract extension after the season, per their usual routine when their starting quarterback has two years left. There is no guarantee the two sides will be able to come to an agreement on how much that extension should cost.

And while there has been no hint of this, it's always possible Roethlisberger could take one look at what's going on around him, see a long rebuilding project, a failed offensive line and no end in sight and decide he might be better off elsewhere. The Steelers, though, would be advised to be very careful here. They did not win a Super Bowl between Terry Bradshaw and Roethlisberger and there is no guarantee they won't find themselves scraping for a good quarterback for years the way the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills have searched with little success.

• Their offensive line has been retarded by too many injuries, little quality depth and the failures of at least one high pick they counted on, Mike Adams, to quickly take over. One thing that has become obvious by now is after all those draft picks, they still need to find a left tackle because they do not have one on their roster. They have been plugging that hole at left tackle with a player, Kelvin Beachum, they drafted to play guard.

• The Steelers have never been in a position to blow up things and virtually start over. They will have to take a good hard look at their talent after this season to determine if they have a young core talented enough to build around or if more drastic measures should be taken.

Ed Bouchette: and Twitter @EdBouchette.