Ed Bouchette's five keys to the Steelers season

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The keys to the Steelers kingdom in the NFL:

The changing of the line

The investments made in the offensive line were high, and now they believe it's time for them to show why. Two first-round picks and two second-round picks will start and the Steelers say it's time for their young players to put up. They have not had a great line in a long time but did go to two Super Bowls with lines that could be called average. They have a new line coach in Jack Bicknell Jr., who has been busy teaching them a new outside zone run-blocking scheme. Their most important job, though, is to protect Ben Roethlisberger, who at 31 is no spring chicken any more and they don't want him running around like one to avoid pressure. They have assigned Mike Adams to that most important job at left tackle while Marcus Gilbert, who opened training camp as their left tackle, slid to the right side, where he played in each of the past two seasons.

PG graphic: The roster
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Running game, anyone?

The Steelers put an emphasis on improving their running game last season and it became one big mess because of injuries and other reasons. They sank to 26th in the NFL in total rushing yards. They are doubling their efforts to improve their ground game this year but so far, things just aren't going their way. Their new bell cow, Le'Veon Bell, will open the season on the sideline nursing a small torn ligament in his right foot. The other newcomer, LaRod Stephens-Howling missed three games with a slightly sprained MCL, although he's ready to open the season. Then there is Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, their two backs who were successful at times last season and injured much of the other. They were needy enough at halfback that they traded for Felix Jones, a former No. 1 pick of the Dallas Cowboys.

Get the ball, don't lose it

Bill Cowher would post a large chart in his team meeting room each week displaying several of what he felt were the most crucial statistics from any game and how his team fared the previous week in them. At the very top of the list: turnovers. Create more turnovers than you lose and the percentages are high that you will win. In that sense, it was remarkable that the Steelers finished 8-8 last season because they lost 10 more turnovers than they created. That ranked them near the bottom of the league. The blame falls on both offense and defense. Their defense has been poor in causing fumbles and interceptions in each of the past two seasons. In 2010, the Steelers caused 35 turnovers. That dropped to 15 in 2011 and 20 last season. It's not good enough, even though the defense ranked No. 1 in fewest yards allowed in each of the past two seasons. On offense, their turnovers increased. They had 18 in 2010, 28 in 2011 and 30 last season. That's an ugly trend Mike Tomlin would like to stop.

Pressure the QB

As with their forced-turnovers, the Steelers have not touched the quarterback as often the past two years. It could be why their turnovers have dwindled also. They reached the Super Bowl after cranking out 48 sacks in 2010. That dropped to 35 in 2011 and 37 last season. Much of the reason were the dropoff by their two outside linebackers, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley over the past two seasons, partly to their injuries. After they each wracked up sacks in double figures for three straight seasons -- Harrison set the team record with 16 in 2008 -- neither got that far in each of the past two seasons. Woodley has only four sacks in the past 11/2 seasons. Harrison has gone to Cincinnati, replaced by top draft pick Jarvis Jones and Jason Worilds, who is in his fourth season mostly as a backup. Woodley appears healthy for the first time since the first half of the 2011 season. Coordinator Dick LeBeau also has instructed his ends to get on the edge more to try to put more pressure on the quarterback, according to one of them, Brett Keisel.

Win the close ones

The Steelers lost five games by three points in 2012 and a sixth by six points. Another loss wasn't decided until near the end. They had the ball trailing by six in Denver in the season opener when cornerback Tracy Porter intercepted Ben Roethlisberger and returned it 43 yards for a touchdown with 1:58 to go to give the Broncos a 31-19 victory. They also won four close games. It's how they play, they don't lose or win big. Toss a couple of those close losses onto their win column and the Steelers are 10-6 and in the playoffs. The closer the game, the bigger impact those small mistakes have on the outcome. Losing close games is not a matter of luck but discipline, many believe, and the bad teams lose the close games. They won their share of close ones in 2012, but will need to win more than their share if they play as many close ones again in 2013.


First Published September 5, 2013 4:00 AM


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