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10 ways to fix the Steelers

| Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall might not return next season. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Chaz Palla | Tribune Review
Steelers offensive lineman Willie Colon plays against the Broncos on Sept. 9, 2012, at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver.

Every three years, the Steelers go through their own accelerated version of a leap year. It happened in 2000, '03, '06, '09 and, yes, in '12.

There are numerous injuries. Veteran players underperform. Early-round draft picks don't contribute. They lose close games and lose some games that don't have any business being close. The playoffs don't happen.

In the past, they've always fixed what went wrong, and in a hurry. Each of the last four times they sat out the playoffs following a single-digit win season, they bounced back to have a double digit-win season and make the playoffs.

“The one thing Pittsburgh has going for it is that they are a really, really, really stable organization, and they're not going to rush out and do something that helps them for only one month or one year,” former Cowboys personnel chief Gil Brandt said. “They understand the big picture as well as anybody in the league.”

How do the Steelers do it? Maybe they don't always get the season right, but they always seem to get the offseason right. And this is one offseason they need to get right following an 8-8 season.

A top 10 list of what the Steelers need to get right — and right now, based on the recommendation of multiple former NFL executives and coaches:

1. Address the running game

Only once in 45 years have they run the ball as poorly as they did this season. They've used a first-round pick on a lead runner only once since 1989; they might have to do it again.

“You've got so much invested in that quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) that (a running back) would be a wise investment,” former Redskins and Cowboys general manager Charley Casserly said.

2. Find a way to stay healthier

Staying injury-free isn't always staying lucky; often it's the residue of training hard, training long and training right. For LaMarr Woodley, linebackers coach Keith Butler said that means a greater emphasis on getting his hamstrings in shape. For Troy Polamalu, it could be as simple as staying slimmer in the offseason.

“I think winning eight games with all the injuries they had is almost mind-boggling, to do as good as they do,” Casserly said. “To me, the No. 1 issue with this team was being decimated by injuries.”

3. Stabilize the o-line

An offense that ranked only 22nd in scoring was never more efficient than it was when the oft-disrupted line stayed intact during a four-game midseason winning streak. Maybe that means finding a veteran-type lineman like Max Starks to provide some consistency until Mike Adams, Marcus Gilbert and Kelvin Beachum settle in. Or maybe it means they can't count on the frequently injured Willie Colon any longer.

4. Don't be stuck on the corner

If they've decided Cortez Allen is ready to start, Keenan Lewis could become expendable. If not, they'll need to find a way to pay Allen fair market value, yet still keep cap space for other important needs. That won't be easy.

“(Ike) Taylor and Polamalu, they've got to be playing at the top of their game, or they're in trouble,” Brandt said.

5. Get back to what they do best on defense

And that's pressuring and disrupting. They paid their linebackers more than all but one team in 2012 and didn't get a payback on their investment. That could mean selling some stocks and buying some new ones.

“(Jason) Worilds made some plays at times, but nobody else is establishing themselves at outside linebacker,” said Casserly, an NFL Network analyst. “Outside linebacker is crucial in that defense.”

6. Make sure BIG BEN is sold on Todd Haley's strategy

Maybe that requires playbook tweaking on Haley's part or more offseason collaboration. Whatever the method, Roethlisberger must believe in what he's being asked to do, or it won't work.

7. Find a deep threat

Roethlisberger needs to be able to slam dunk occasionally, not just dink and dunk.

8. Refine the D-line

Casey Hampton might be gone, and Brett Keisel will be next. The defensive line is a major concern, especially given Ziggy Hood's low-grade play and Cam Heyward's lack of development. This might require some creativity.

9. Tighten up the offense

They need another tight end, especially with Heath Miller's start-of-season status in doubt.

10. Bring in some new ideas

Mike Tomlin will hire a new offensive line coach, and he also has another staff opening. If he chooses to fill it — and how he fills it — could be telling.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at arobinson@tribweb.com or @arobinson_Trib.

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