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Rossi: Steelers will make small strides this season

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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger celebrates with Markus Wheaton after Wheaton's first-quarter touchdown against the Bills on Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014, at Heinz Field.

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Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014, 7:45 p.m.
 

An energized training camp was in its second week when Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert spoke of a franchise known for the players it drafts as opposed to the ones it signs. A team whose identity mirrors its small-market city should be a club consistently contending for championships.

“The franchise I admire is the San Antonio Spurs,” Colbert said. “They've won championships in three decades.”

It's a nice thought, right?

The Steelers, off two disappointing seasons, making magic with a group that blends young talent and championship veterans and restoring some old-school sensibility to an NFL that is ruled by Seahawks, spread offenses and speed.

Well, it's a thought anyway.

For it to actually happen, the Steelers — like the Spurs — will need some special stuff from star players no longer in their physical peak.

It actually doesn't start with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, though he'll be involved.

Troy Polamalu is the best safety in the history of a franchise with an unrivaled defensive legacy. He will one day walk into the Hall of Fame, probably on a first ballot and hopefully after at least faking one of those line-of-scrimmage leaps that never seemed believable.

Polamalu is 33, and he is on a season-to-season basis, if not a game-to-game situation.

The Steelers need 16 games from him in the regular season. The secondary is that suspect. If Polamalu can't play — and make plays — all the encouraging signs from a promising front seven won't matter.

Ike Taylor has spent most of his career as one of the most underappreciated cornerbacks in the NFL. Now he is way overvalued as a starter, even at a cap hit of $2.75 million.

He took a pay cut to stay with the Steelers.

Loyalty? Actually, Taylor probably smartly realized there was only one NFL team for which he could start.

Only one cornerback surrendered more receptions in his coverage area than did Taylor, who allowed 71. He was among leaders with 12 passes defended, but his six touchdowns allowed were more than all but nine players at his position.

The Steelers' defensive backfield issues are not really about Taylor being all but finished. They're about him being their best defensive back.

Cortez Allen might be OK. William Gay might be all right. The other corners might be worth noting.

A lot of “might” rarely makes for mighty, which the Steelers will need from their defense to turn 8-8 into 10 wins or more.

Polamalu is still pretty good.

This secondary will need him to be great. That's a lot to ask of a player who should only be tasked to do what Tim Duncan has for the Spurs the past two NBA seasons: play less, then make plays in the big games.

If the Steelers were at that point with Polamalu, they'd be in Super shape.

They aren't at that point, and not being there will waste a group of swift and skilled linebackers that must remind position coach Joey Porter of, well, his old groups of linebackers.

The Steelers aren't a championship defense.

It might not matter, either.

The AFC is about offense, and the Steelers did not lack there by the end of last season. They scored 28 points or more in six of their final eight contests.

If Roethlisberger is healthy — and really, truly on the same page with offensive coordinator Todd Haley — the Steelers will score points, maybe not as many as Denver, but enough to be positioned to win a lot of games.

That will prove true even with the can't-be-worse rushing attack, won't-be-deep receiving corps and never-quite-ready offensive line.

Roethlisberger, chasing a promised contract extension, is that good.

Are the Steelers?

Well, they start against Cleveland, which is where the Spurs just chased LeBron James to after winning their first NBA title in seven seasons. Alas, coincidence does not win games in North America's most balanced league — and the Steelers won't win the Super Bowl.

They're getting better, even if only by a game this season.

Figure on 9-7, and relax. The decade isn't over yet.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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