The Pittsburgh Steelers parted ways with their best pass-rusher in James Harrison, the anchor of their defensive line in Casey Hampton and a young promising cornerback in Keenan Lewis. The most disturbing part about this is defense doesn't rank as the the team's top concern right now, and I'm not talking about a fractured locker room, either.
When it comes to the Steelers' offense, it's Big Ben and a lot of Big Questions. Who is the starting running back? Who is the No. 1 tight end at the start of the season? Will this reshuffled offensive line live up to expectations? Can the wide receivers withstand another loss?
Ben Roethlisberger remains a top-five quarterback in the NFL, but there's a question mark even with a two-time Super Bowl winner. Can he stay healthy for an entire season? The Steelers can't realistically think about putting together a winning season, much less a playoff one, if Roethlisberger is wincing in pain again for a third straight December. Not with what has gone on the past few months.
Mike Wallace, the team's leading receiver for the past three seasons, signed with the Miami Dolphins, and restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders, the receiver who is expected to replace Wallace, could get an offer sheet from the New England Patriots next month. Heath Miller, the starting tight end and team most valuable player, doesn't have a timetable to return after tearing his ACL in the second-to-last game. Rashard Mendenhall, the team's only proven workhorse running back, went to the Arizona Cardinals. Left guard Willie Colon was released and left tackle Max Starks isn't expected to be re-signed.
Remember last year at this time when the main issues surrounding the offense was when Wallace would report, who would step up at running back and how long it would take before Roethlisberger was introduced to offensive coordinator Todd Haley? It's a more serious time for the Steelers' offense now. Whether or not Pittsburgh can provide viable answers to all of these questions will go a long way in determining the Steelers' fate this season -- a rebound from an 8-8 season or a return to another season of mediocrity.
“I don’t want to say it’s a transition phase because I feel like I’m still here and ready to rock and roll," Roethlisberger told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette earlier this month. "I feel like I’m in my prime and ready to play great football."
Roethlisberger is right that his play often dictates the success of the offense. Before his rib injury last year, he was having an MVP-type season with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions. The Steelers were ranked 13th in scoring at that point. But his absence, coupled with his average play when he returned from the injury, caused the Steelers to finish 22nd in scoring, the worst of the Roethlisberger era and two spots ahead of the Cleveland Browns.
With a healthy Roethlisberger under center, the Steelers won't panic or concede this is a rebuilding season -- and they rightfully shouldn't. Pittsburgh's offense won't suddenly turn into Jacksonville, Arizona or the New York Jets if Roethlisberger is breaking free from pass-rushers and strong-arming throws in the end zone. There should be concern over the supporting cast, however. Four established starters (Wallace, Mendenhall, Starks and Colon) are gone or not expected to return and Miller could miss the start of the season. The Steelers, who are currently $2.5 million under the cap, can't really do much at this point to answer most of these questions.
Here's a position-by-position look at what could lie ahead for the Pittsburgh offense ...
Running back: Ahmad Bradshaw, who is visiting Pittsburgh on Wednesday, is clearly the Steelers' best option this year if he has recovered from foot surgery because there's no immediate starter in the draft. Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman aren't the answer after they produced the Steelers' worst rushing season in nine years.
Wide receiver: The Steelers would be in trouble if they lost Sanders to the Patriots. With only role players left in free agency, Pittsburgh would be forced to turn to the draft to find another playmaker at receiver. If Sanders remains, which I predict will ultimately happen, he'll team with Antonio Brown for one of the quickest receiver tandems in the league.
Tight end: The Steelers are hoping to know by next month when they can expect Miller to return. This is the time when the Steelers need to think about drafting Miller's future replacement. He turns 31 during the season and will make $6 million in 2014, the final year of his contract. The top tight ends in the draft are: Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert (first round), Stanford's Zach Ertz (first or second round), Florida's Jordan Reed (third round) and Cincinnati's Travis Kelce (third or fourth round).
Offensive line: Pittsburgh is looking for some return on its investment. The Steelers have used two picks in the first and second rounds on this projected starting lineup: left tackle Marcus Gilbert, left guard Ramon Foster, center Maurkice Pouncey, right guard David DeCastro and right tackle Mike Adams. The hope is Gilbert can protect Roethlisberger's blind side and the right side (which has a combined nine starts) can hold up for an entire season.
In addition to the questions about the roster, there's one that focuses on the Steelers sideline: the relationship between Roethlisberger and Haley. The Ravens showed last season how finding the right chemistry between a coordinator and quarterback can spark a magical run. A week after the Ravens made the switch from Cam Cameron to Jim Caldwell, Roethlisberger publicly criticized Haley's playcalling following an overtime loss at Dallas. Roethlisberger later apologized, but this only fueled speculation of an ongoing rift between them.
“I think that being familiar and continuing to gain understanding is what's going to make us successful not only offensively but as a team," coach Mike Tomlin said last week of the Haley-Roethlisberger relationship. “I think that process is unfolding. Both guys are geared towards winning, and they're unselfish from that standpoint. I'm excited about watching it continue to grow.”
Many thought Haley was the answer in getting the Steelers' offense back on track. A year later, the Steelers are facing a bigger challenge and bigger questions on offense.