- There are good reasons for this. The predicted salary cap Armageddon instead became the salary cap equivalent of the Loaves and the Fishes.
Yes, these 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers are a hard nut to crack, with professionals and bloggers alike sparing over the meaning of an 0-4 preseason start. No one really knows what to expect.
Rightly or wrongly, the man who will be held most responsible for the Steelers success or failure in 2013 is Mike Tomlin. And to that end Tomlin has four very specific challenges he must meet. (Click on the link below for a specific challenge for scroll down to read them all):
Tomlin’s First Challenge: Develop Talent
Tomlin’s Second Challenge: Fill the Leadership Void
Tomlin’s Third Challenge: Take on the Trap Games
Tomlin’s Fourth Challenge: Keep Things on an Even Keel
Tomlin’s Challenge: Develop Talent
Kevin Colbert pooh pawed the departure of the likes of Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall and Keenan Lewis as "losing players from an 8-8 team." He promised change. He wasn't kidding.
Colbert didn't simply sit back and let other teams overpay for newly minted Steelers free agents ala Tom Donahoe, he let go overpriced and aging superstars like James Harrison, snake bitten studs like Willie Colon, and dependable standbys like Max Starks depart. He also cleared the ranks of the supporting cast, but allowing Doug Legursky, Will Allen and Ryan Mundy to walk.
- In their place he's assembled a smart 2013 draft class, mixed with some first year players, 2012 draftees, and undrafted rookie free agents.
- Kevin Colbert has given Tomlin cart blanche to prove it this year.
To that end, Mike Tomlin has done a better job since then (see Antonio Brown in 2010 and 2011 as one example).
- 2013 will provide a far bigger test.
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Tomlin’s Challenge: Fill the Locker Room Leadership Void
At some point after the Steelers 1998 disastrous trip to Detroit that included Phil Luckett's infamous "heads is actually tails" incident, a fan wrote into the Steelers Digest and offered something long the lines of "Cowher needs to realize that this team lacks the playoff veterans of years past, and needs to take the team by the collective collar."
- The fan dead right of course, because so many players quit down the stretch in 1998.
Now fast forward to 2012. In the blink of an eye during the 2012 off season, the Steelers lost Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, and James Farrior, three acknowledged leaders both on and off the field.
As 2012 wore on and inconsistency became habit forming, it became clear that the leadership void was real.
- To his credit, Mike Tomlin seems to have readily realized that and acted accordingly.
Tomlin hasn't stopped there, asking Ben Roethlisberger to take on a more active leadership role. He held the first training camp with live tackling since Chuck Noll began his "Life's work," and he and Colbert have been unsentimental in wielding the axe to the roster.
- On paper all of these are the right moves.
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Tomlin’s Challenge: Take on the Trap Games
Its become cliché in Steelers Nation to say that Mike Tomlin teams have an issue with trap games. But unlike Warren Sapp’s dictum of "Old, Slow and Done" the trap game charge stands up to scrutiny.
In 2007, Tomlin's rookie year, the Steelers dropped games to the Jets and Cardinals. In 2009, the dropped games to the Bears, Browns, and Chiefs. In 2012 the Steelers gave away "Gimmies" to the no-account Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans, and San Diego Chargers.
One criticism of Tomlin made in mid-2007 was that the Steelers played down to their competition under their new coach.
Since than that observation has been proven to be true... at times.
- At other times this has not been an issue.
In 2010, the story was similar, with the Steelers losing games to the New Orleans Saints and getting spanked mightily by the New England Patriots. Yet that season they also beat the teams they "should have" beaten.
- The 2011 Steelers were a far inferior version of their '08 and '10 predecessors, yet the '11 Steelers avoided the trap game.
Tomlin cannot allow that ability to fail him in 2013.
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Tomlin’s Challenge: Keep Things on an Even Keel
Chose your cliché. "Start fast, finish strong." "Go the distance." Whatever.
Tomlin's less successful teams have had another nasty habit -- peaking near mid season.
- In 2007 the triumph of the 75th Anniversary game was followed by a 4-4 finish and first round playoff loss to Jacksonville
- In 2009 the Steelers dominated a Denver team that went into the game at 6-1 and finally looked like a defending champion - then followed with a 5 game losing streak
- In 2011 the Steelers enacted some vengeance by defeating Tom Brady and New England, only to follow it up with a home loss to Baltimore
- ...Except that they went and lost 3 of their next 4.
And he's right. Injuries certainly didn't cause force the fumbles, kickoffs returned for touchdowns, coverage lapses, and interceptions that marked some of the '07, '09, '11 and '12 signature losses.
- Like the trap games, this is a demon that Tomlin vanquished in 2008 and 2010. In 2009 he also pulled the team out of an 0-5 nose dive.
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Preparing for the “Unknown Unknowns”
Every NFL season brings a certain X-Factor, a certain amount of unpredictability. Think ever reliable Jeff Reed sudden descent into mediocrity in 2010.
Steelers Nation already knows that a younger roster with desperately thin depth, particularly on the offensive line, will test the Steelers.
- But 2013 will present the Pittsburgh Steelers with additional trials that no one can anticipate today.
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