Are the Steelers unraveling?

July, 14, 2011
7/14/11
1:37
PM ET
James Harrison, Hines Ward and Rashard MendenhallGetty Images, US PresswireJames Harrison, Hines Ward and Rashard Mendenhall have all contributed to the Steelers' off-field issues this offseason.
Here's a July prediction: The Baltimore Ravens will win the AFC North this season.

Yes, I said it -- and I will be sticking with that statement through January.

For months I've been going back-and-forth between Baltimore and the reigning AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Both teams are talented, but this week's events put me over the top in favor of the Ravens.

I simply don't like what I'm seeing from Pittsburgh this offseason. Whether it's Rashard Mendenhall's tweeting, Hines Ward's recent arrest or James Harrison ripping everyone -- including his own teammates -- there's too many warning signs that suggest this isn't the Steelers' year.

Keep in mind, this is not a new phenomenon in Pittsburgh. Self-implosion is what the Steelers do best following Super Bowl appearances.

In 2006, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger got into a motorcycle accident and the Steelers finished 8-8. In 2009, Pittsburgh had to deal with Roethlisberger's first sexual assault allegation and Troy Polamalu's knee injury to finish 9-7. Both years they missed the playoffs.

This offseason reminds me too much of 2006 and 2009. The difference is that this year the leaks are coming from various places. Pittsburgh's controversies involve three starters who are among the most important members of the team. In addition, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and president Art Rooney II have been unable to address these issues during the NFL lockout.

What will Rooney say to Mendenhall, who is no longer a fan favorite, about questioning the events of 9/11? What will Ward -- a team captain -- say to the front office about getting busted on charges of driving under the influence this past weekend? How will Tomlin address Harrison for ripping star players in his own locker room?

And this is before the Steelers hold their first practice in training camp.

Health permitting, Pittsburgh certainly is good enough to make the playoffs. But the odds are stacked against their winning a seventh Super Bowl title this season.

The Buffalo Bills were the last runners-up to make it back to the big game (Super Bowl appearances in 1991-1994), and they lost in each trip. It takes a tremendous amount of focus, togetherness and luck. The Steelers haven't displayed any of that so far in their quest to complete one of the hardest journeys in professional sports.

Harrison has never been called a bad teammate. But when you do an interview as explosive as he did with Men's Journal, it has the potential to divide a locker room.

Harrison may have exposed some underlying tension between Pittsburgh's offense and defense. He crossed the line by lambasting Roethlisberger and Mendenhall. Harrison later spoke with Roethlisberger. But there is no word at this juncture if Harrison is rescinding his "fumble machine" comment toward Mendenhall.

So what happens the next time Mendenhall fumbles? Will Harrison and the defense snicker about it? When Roethlisberger throws a pick deep in Pittsburgh's territory, will the defense focus and just play football? These things happen during the course of a season, and the Steelers need to pick each other up and play like one unit, which has been their strength in previous seasons.

Last year, Pittsburgh had one distraction, which was Roethlisberger's four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. That was easier to resolve, especially because Roethlisberger wasn't allowed around the team for the first month of the season. This year, the Steelers tripled the amount of distractions, and it will take more effort to get through each case.

The Steelers also have several personnel questions to address.

With the team expected to be more than $10 million over the salary cap, it's likely that No. 1 corner Ike Taylor won't return. He's not interested in offering a discount to stay in Pittsburgh. That leaves a major void in its secondary, which was exposed by the Green Bay Packers and several other teams last season.

The contracts of veterans Antwaan Randle El, Flozell Adams and Aaron Smith also will be up for discussion as the team tries to get under the cap. Their potential departures will hurt depth and leadership.

In contrast, the Ravens have it more together. Their biggest issue this offseason is opponents criticizing fourth-year quarterback Joe Flacco. And, if anything, that's been a rallying point that's motivated the Ravens and brought them closer together.

Baltimore has been unable to beat Pittsburgh in big games recently. But the talent is so close between these heated rivals that any additional edge can shift the balance in the AFC North.

Consider the Ravens the new favorites in the division in 2011. The Steelers are too busy dealing with self-inflicted wounds.

James Walker | email

ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter

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