How much time does a Super Bowl buy you?
Mike Tomlin could be very close to finding out the answer to that question if he can’t get the Steelers back to the playoffs this season. Don’t look now, but the chips are stacked against him.
Since winning the Super Bowl four years ago, Tomlin and the Steelers are 41-23 in the regular season with two playoff appearances in four years. The first of those ended with a dud in the Super Bowl loss to the Green Bay Packers. The second saw the Steelers go one-and-done on the back of a Tim Tebow overtime touchdown pass.
Perhaps more alarming than the 23 losses in four seasons is Pittsburgh’s record in the AFC North over the past two seasons. They’ve dropped three of their last four to the rival Baltimore Ravens and split last season with both the Browns and Bengals.
The road won’t get any easier, as it looks like the Ravens have replaced experience with speed and youth on defense as they prepare to defend their title. The Bengals are on everyone’s radar as a team on the rise who could even swoop in and steal the crown from the Ravens. Meanwhile, Cleveland continues to slowly build what is shaping up to look like a competitive roster.
Quite simply, the AFC North itself will be brutal and the Steelers are no longer the consensus kings of the mountain in the division.
Taking a quick look at Pittsburgh’s 2013 schedule, I see only eight games, depending on how the season starts to shake out, where the Steelers will be the odds on favorites to win in Vegas. They play seven games against teams who qualified for the playoffs one season ago. In addition to those teams, they also play Chicago and Detroit, both of whom are expected to boast high-powered offenses in 2013.
Pittsburgh’s defense should be able to hold its own as it did a season ago when the Steelers finished the year as the top ranked unit (yards allowed) in the NFL. That said, it’s the offense that is filled with question marks. Receiver Antonio Brown will try to rebound after a disappointing 2012 campaign, while Emmanuel Sanders steps into a starting role for the first time in his career thanks to the departure of Mike Wallace. In the backfield, the Steelers are working with a hodge-podge of veteran journeyman and one rookie with big expectations, LeVeon Bell. They’ll need someone to step up quickly to establish that power running game that has been the staple of so many great Steeler teams.
Granted, the Steelers have only had three coaches over the past four decades, but these are different times. If Mike Tomlin can’t find a way to get the 2013 Steelers back to the postseason after last year’s 8-8 campaign, the grumbling in the Steel City will make its way to the front office of Heinz Field. Will the Rooney family listen to the pulse of a passionate fan base or stay the course?
Somewhere, Mike Tomlin is doing all he can to make sure that decision doesn’t have to be made at the end of this season.
BY J.P. SCOTT ON July 1, 2013