Bob Smizik: Steelers strong finish no big deal

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The Steelers positive conclusion to the year, winning six of their final eight games, is a guarantee of nothing for 2014 -- not a winning season and certainly not the playoffs.

Some teams might be heartened by such a finish and take the wrong message from it. That’s not likely to happen with the Steelers, a team with high standards. Nevertheless, they must guard against being satisfied with what they accomplished.

If you missed it, Gerry Dulac’s rundown of all the ways the Steelers found to lose games is a worthwhile read. From their game-changing, negative big-play defense, to their costly turnovers, to their memorable individual gaffes, it was all there. There are no guarantees many of those same things won’t happen next year. Proof of that were two interceptions and a fumble by Ben Roethlisberger in the 20-7 season finale win over Cleveland Sunday.

No one should take the fact that the Steelers held the Browns scoreless for 57 minutes as any kind of reprieve for a defense that’s badly in need of a major overhaul.

But first the good:

There’s much to like about the Steelers offense, which improved steadily and significantly as the season progressed. There might be depth issues at some positions but there are no glaring weaknesses.

It’s still a bit early to pronounce Kelvin Beachum as the left tackle of the future, but this one-time seventh-round draft choice has given indications he can handle the position. Those are the kind of draft masterpieces that can push a team forward. With Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster and Marcus Gilbert all returning and most not yet in their prime, there’s plenty of reason for optimism about this group. Nor should anyone give up on Michael Adams, who might yet turn out to be the left tackle of the future.

Antonio Brown has taken a long stride toward establishing himself as an elite wide receiver. He needs help. With Emmanuel Sanders almost certain to be gone via free agency, the Steelers need to look for Markus Wheaton to step forward, as his third-round draft status might suggest. Jerricho Cotchery is also a free agent, but the Steelers should have a better opportunity to sign him.

The Steelers will need to look for receiver depth and an eventual replacement for tight end Heath Miller in the draft.

Coach Mike Tomlin’s patience with Le’Veon Bell proved a wise course of action. Bell looks to be the tough inside runner the Steelers have needed for at least several years and he’s a highly competent receiver out of the backfield.

With Roethlisberger still in his prime, the offense has a chance to be a true strength in 2014.

The defense could negate what ever strength the offense might have. Sure, the defense stopped the Browns, with Jason Campbell at quarterback. But the week before it gave up four touchdowns and 370 yards to the Green Bay Packers, without Aaron Rodgers. And two weeks before that it gave up four touchdowns and 360 yards to the Miami Dolphins, the team that managed one touchdown at home against the Jets yesterday.

The Steelers salary-cap management, long a strength, has become a liability. The team has been absent from any kind of significant movement in the free-agent market for several years because it had so little cap room and it’s not likely to be able to do much in that area this offseason. That’s too bad because free agency is about the only way the Steelers could come close to revitalizing their defense.

Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Larry Foote, Jason Worilds, LaMarr Woodley, Ryan Clark, Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu are some of the players who could become cap casualties this offseason. And with almost no one on the roster to suitably replace them.

The Steelers will need massive steps forward from Cam Heyward, Shamarko Thomas and Cortez Allen. They’re going to need some players coming out of nowhere to make big contributions.

To be sure, it’s early. But this isn’t MLB with a much higher level of player movement. A roster is far more stable in the NFL that in any of the other major pro sports -- unless a team is a big-time player in free agency.

There’s no telling what a team with a first-rate offense and a third-rate defense will do in the NFL of 2014. Something like the season just completed would not be surprising.

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