Wednesday, January 4, 2012
Steelers regular-season wrap-up
By Jamison Hensley
Arrow indicates direction team is trending.
Final Power Ranking: 6
Preseason Power Ranking: 3
Antonio Brown emerged as Pittsburgh's biggest playmaker -- notching more than 1,000 yards in both returns and receptions.
Biggest surprise: The Steelers hoped to get an occasional spark out of Antonio Brown as the No. 3 receiver after he had 16 catches for 167 yards as a rookie. By the end of the season, he ended up being the team's hottest playmaker. A threat as a receiver and returner, Brown became the first player in NFL history to get 1,000 receiving yards and 1,000 return yards in the same season, which is why his teammates named him the Steelers' Most Valuable Player. Brown returned a punt for a game-clinching touchdown against Cincinnati and scored on a 79-yard touchdown catch-and-run in the fourth quarter against Cleveland. His breakout season ended with 69 receptions for 1,108 yards.
Biggest disappointment: Pittsburgh has one of the best pass rushing combinations in James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. The problem is, they weren't on the field together for most of the season. An eye injury and an NFL suspension sidelined Harrison for five games, and a hamstring injury has caused Woodley to miss six. These edge rushers haven't completed a full game together since Sept. 25 at Indianapolis. The lack of a consistent pass rush and turnovers has been the weakness of the NFL's top-ranked defense. In Pittsburgh's four losses, the Steelers have totaled four sacks and one takeaway.
Biggest need: The offensive line has been a need for several seasons. Pittsburgh should be commended for patching up the line when it looked like it was falling apart earlier in the year. The re-signing of Max Starks stabilized the unit and moved struggling Jonathan Scott to the sideline. The Steelers also replaced penalty magnet Chris Kemoeatu with Doug Legursky. There's plenty of work to do if the Steelers want to improve the protection for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The only two starters that you can see being here for the next five seasons are Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who has steadily improved throughout his rookie season.
Team MVP: The Steelers voted Brown as their MVP, but the most irreplaceable player on the team is Roethlisberger. He carried the Steelers' pass-first offense with 4,077 yards, 21 touchdowns and a 63.2 completion rate. The impressive part is that Roethlisberger did this in pain, even surpassing his usual standard for playing with injuries. He sprained his foot (which required a metal plate in his shoe), broke his right thumb and then suffered a high-ankle sprain. This could go down as his best season in terms of heroics. Roethlisberger threw five touchdowns against Tennessee, out-dueled Tom Brady and beat Cleveland in the first meeting on one leg.
Big decision: The most intriguing question is whether the Steelers will part ways with Hines Ward after he became the eighth receiver in NFL history to reach 1,000 catches. He lost his 13-year starting job to the next generation of Pittsburgh wide receivers (Brown, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders) and the 35-year-old receiver carries a big price tag over the next two years, when he is scheduled to make $4 million each season. Ward has made it clear that he doesn't plan to retire.