Steelers find themselves at a fork in their NFL road

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The Steelers arrive Friday at Saint Vincent College, where they will reach a fork in the road. As Yogi Berra might advise, they will take it.

Their 8-8 record in 2012, followed by more roster upheaval, provoked a seemingly equal split of opinions on where this football team is headed: Further down as it pays the price for keeping a championship team together for so long without an infusion of top young talent? Or, was last season merely a speed bump for a franchise that has shown it knows how to compete for playoffs and Super Bowls annually.

There are historical records to boost both points, starting with the demise of the great 1970s teams that took them until the 1990s to straighten out. There also was their successful run after a hideous 6-10 season in 2003 -- they followed with the first 15-1 record in AFC history in 2004 and then won two Super Bowls in the next four years.

All that, as Mike Tomlin would say, is in the rear-view mirror. So, too, are what Tomlin declared good spring workouts for his team.

PG graphic: Steelers roster
(Click image for larger version)

"Legitimately, you'd like to find ways to measure offseasons and feel good about it," Tomlin said as he closed minicamp in June. "But the reality is these types of processes are measured based on results. So, our offseason, our training camp and our preseason ultimately will be measured on how we perform. I think it's important that the guys understand that."

You are what your record says you are, Bill Parcells famously said. General manager Kevin Colbert hammered that point home often since January -- the Steelers were 8-8 and everyone associated with the franchise bore that record. Lose Mike Wallace, Keenan Lewis and James Harrison among many others? Colbert shrugged it off and said they were part of an 8-8 team.

This team, though, has reasons to believe it will pull itself up from its third-place finish behind Super Bowl champion Baltimore and wildcard playoff team Cincinnati to win the AFC North Division.

Those reasons start with Ben Roethlisberger, who enters his 10th season coming off one of his best/worst performances. He was on his way to an MVP-like year as he led the Steelers to a 6-3 record. A hit that caused serious rib and right shoulder injuries in the 10th game changed all that, and after missing three games, he was not the same.

Still, Roethlisberger threw 26 touchdown passes and only eight interceptions (four of them in the first three games after his injury, two of them virtually leading to late losses). He had an excellent 97.0 passer rating.

There also is the matter of a defense that finished first in the NFL for the second consecutive time in fewest yards allowed, even with some of its stars such as Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley missing. The Steelers defense has led the NFL in fewest yards allowed five of the past nine seasons, but it became only the second No. 1 defense not to land in the playoffs in this century. San Diego also managed to miss the playoffs in 2010 with the league's top defense.

There was a difference in the Steelers defense in 2012, however, because it did not dominate with sacks, turnovers and other big plays as it has so often in the past. The team produced 37 sacks, just 10 interceptions and 20 total turnovers. In the meantime, the Steelers lost 30 turnovers.

Coordinator Dick LeBeau emphasized those areas to his defense in the spring, although he did so the previous spring as well with no improvement to show for it. There is reason to believe the big plays will return if players such as Polamalu and Woodley can stay healthy.

"We have to get more turnovers,'' LeBeau said. "We've had years that we've been real productive there, but the last couple we haven't been. I wish I knew the answer to the why, but we're searching for those answers and we're working in that direction.

"We'll keep stressing it. That's the most obvious area. We have to help the offense shorten their field and maybe get some more points ourselves. You've got to get fumbles, sacks and interceptions to do that."

Losing Harrison won't help in that area, and right outside linebacker becomes the most questionable position on defense, at least until either fourth-year pro Jason Worilds or top rookie draft pick, Jarvis Jones, proves otherwise.

The Steelers offense still lugs most of the burden of proof over unsteady ground into this training camp. Roethlisberger, at 31, remains one of the best quarterbacks in the league, but they need him to stay healthy.

Roethlisberger is surrounded by positions that, while not unstable, have their own issues. How will the loss of Mike Wallace affect the receivers? How soon will Heath Miller, the team's MVP and leading receiver in 2012, return from triple-knee ligament injury and how will the tight end position fare until he does? What to make of the youth movement in the offensive line? Can the running game, which dipped to 26th in the league last season, return to form?

Many, many questions. Beginning Friday, the Steelers hope to start finding the answers.

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First Published July 21, 2013 4:00 AM


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