Some advice for fans as they head to Saint Vincent College, where the Steelers report for training camp Friday and hold their first practice Saturday: Keep a scorecard handy because you might not be able to tell the players apart without one.
The turnover of the Steelers the past 21⁄2 years has been dramatic and nearly complete after another round of changes in 2014. Only three starters on offense and three on defense remain from the last time the Steelers appeared in a playoff game, Jan. 8, 2012.
This is not even your children’s Super Bowl team anymore. The players who appeared in three Super Bowls between 2005 and 2010 and brought home two trophies have virtually disappeared, with a handful of notable exceptions.
One of those is tight end Heath Miller, and even he is trying to learn the names of all those fresh-faced defenders he will practice against this summer in Latrobe.
“I’m working on it,’’ said Miller, 31. “There are a lot of new guys. The old numbers aren’t the same guys anymore. It hasn’t changed in a long time.
“Offensively, we went through that transition kind of early on and we’re kind of through it right now, and the defense is kind of going through it at this point.”
That is the world the Steelers and their fans live in today, where the offense is the more settled unit and the defense is largely unknown, untested and no-named.
It has happened just twice in the past 22 seasons, back to the day Bill Cowher was hired to coach the Steelers. In Cowher’s first season and in his last, the Steelers offense ranked higher in the NFL than the defense, and just barely so (9/13 in 1992, 7/9 in 2006). Never under Mike Tomlin has a Steelers offense ranked better than its defense.
That could change this season. Despite consecutive .500 seasons and watching the playoffs from home both years, the Steelers are among the fourth or fifth favorite team from the AFC, according to oddsmakers. You can bet their chances remain that high because of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Great quarterbacks can make up for weaknesses elsewhere, whereas it often does not work the other way around.
Roethlisberger, 32, acknowledged that his 11th offense with the Steelers has a chance to be his most productive.
“If the line can play to their potential and with the ability that we think and know they can, then I think we can be as good as anybody,” he said.
For once in a very long time, the offensive line appears to be the most settled unit on the team with just one possible position up for grabs entering training camp, that of left tackle where Mike Adams will try to unseat Kelvin Beachum.
Other than that, all starters return, including three-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who missed all of 2013 except for the first series because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
“This is great,” Pouncey said of his line. “We’ve been building from last year. We finished the season off well last year. A lot of the guys played great. To get a new coach, a Hall of Fame player like Mike Munchak, is awesome. We really needed him, which is great for the group.”
The Steelers also believe they have a backfield that could be their best since Rashard Mendenhall ran for 1,273 yards in 2010. Le’Veon Bell, who finished his rookie season with a flourish after missing the first three games with a sprained foot, has been given a powerful running partner in veteran LeGarrette Blount and a scatback change of pace in rookie Dri Archer.
The main question on offense for 2014 was previously a team strength, that of wide receiver. After losing three of their top four receivers as free agents since March 2013, the Steelers have filled in with a combination of veteran free agents and rookie Martavis Bryant.
Two-time Pro Bowler Antonio Brown, 26, is the constant, the star, and hopes to become their new leader.
“I have to have a leadership role, explain assignments to the guys and what is expected and needed,” said Brown, who set a team record with 1,499 receiving yards last season. “I have to will the group with my attitude and my actions. I want to be the guy that sets the pace and the standard. Hopefully the guys will follow.”
Although three old-timers return on defense in Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Lawrence Timmons, leaders among the new starters are emerging. One of those is Cam Heyward. Their first-round draft pick in 2011 blossomed last season when he finally got his chance to start at defensive end.
He is among five first-round picks projected to start, including the latest, rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier, on the inside, joining last year’s No. 1, outside linebacker Jarvis Jones.
The Steelers hope those two can help a defense that sagged from its No. 1 ranking in 2012 to No. 13 last season and has seen its ability to make big plays — sacks and turnovers — decline the past three seasons. Their 34 sacks, for example, were their fewest in 23 years.
“We have a lot of potential,’’ Heyward said. “I think we have a high ceiling; the question is whether we can hit that ceiling.”
Their 2013 defense dubiously led the league with 11 plays allowed of 50 yards or more.
“We can’t have the same mistakes over and over again,’’ Heyward said. “That’s what hurt us — big plays over and over again really put us behind the 8-ball. If we can [rectify] that, we can be a good defense.”
The opportunities for young players are there as rarely before because of the disappearance over the past three years of players such as Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith, LaMarr Woodley, James Farrior, James Harrison, Larry Foote and Ryan Clark.
Shazier can become the first rookie to start an opener since Kendrell Bell in 2001 and there might be two of them if Stephon Tuitt makes the grade at defensive end.
But while the Steelers and their fans might not be accustomed to so many new faces on defense, it could be a refreshing change from the downward spiral in which the old defense found itself.
“It’s always good to have an infusion of youth, but you also have veteran leadership who have been there and been through certain situations,” Heyward said. “It’s a growing period. There are going to be mental mistakes because they’re in a new defense — nobody plays defense like us. It’s a different speed, technology.
“It’s a different team, guys are going to be on the field together and it’s going to be a different rotation. You have to understand that and you have to grow with it.”