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Steelers appear to be a mystery team heading into 2013 season

| Wednesday, July 24, 2013, 10:54 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin looks over his team during OTA's Tuesday, May 21, 2013, at the UPMC complex.
Bengals linebacker James Harrison isn't feeling up to par heading into his Pittsburgh homecoming.

The Steelers can turn back the clock this season, and they won't even have to wear those bumblebee-striped throwback uniforms to do so.

They've enjoyed a recent history of turning themselves around in a hurry following disappointing seasons — from 6-10 in 2003 to 15-1, from 8-8 in 2006 to 10-6, from 9-7 in 2009 to 12-4.

But after an offseason in which the Ravens shed a lot of talent but picked up quite a bit, the Bengals added pieces such as James Harrison and even the Browns went shopping, any immediate talent infusion for the Steelers is likely to come from their rookie class.

That's a risky way to rebuild, and it's why the Steelers are considered to be one of the mystery teams of 2013.

Are they finally on the decline after averaging 11 wins a season since 2004? Or was 2012 simply an anomaly, and — even without Harrison, Mike Wallace, Casey Hampton and Keenan Lewis — they're ready to win big again?

They're almost universally picked to finish third in the AFC North behind the Ravens and Bengals, just as they did last season, yet they're still the same franchise that hasn't missed the playoffs in successive seasons since 1999-2000.

“The way things went down, to sit at home and watch their division rivals (Baltimore) win the Super Bowl, I think that creates a lot of motivation for those guys,” said former Pro Bowl offensive lineman Shaun O'Hara, who is now an NFL Network analyst. “When they get to training camp, they're saying, ‘Nobody's giving us a shot. Everybody's got us third in the division.

“That's going to be their rallying cry and motivation: ‘Everybody's counting us out. Let's get to work.' ”

The Steelers haven't had successive non-winning seasons since 1998 (7-9) and 2000 (6-10), but they'll need to improve upon last season's 8-8 to avoid that.

“You can make the case they're the third-best roster in the division, which is very rare to say,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “I still think they have some ground to make up. They've got a lot of work to do. I like what they did in the draft, but when you look at the aging of some players and the departures in free agency, I don't know if a really good draft offset that.”

Even though the No. 1-ranked defense lost Harrison and Lewis during free agency, O'Hara is convinced that any major improvement must come from Todd Haley's offense.

In the past four seasons, the Steelers have slipped from being No. 7 offensively in 2009 under Bruce Arians to No. 21 last season.

“When Mike Tomlin gets together with coordinators, he's looking at Dick LeBeau and saying, ‘Keep doing what you're doing.' He's looking at Todd Haley and saying, ‘You need to get better,' ” O'Hara said.

O'Hara blames the offense's 2012 decline on turnovers, the significant slippage in the run game and a dropoff in big plays — about one fewer per game than in the 12-4 season of 2011.

Big-play specialist Wallace is gone, and Roethlisberger's favorite receiver, Heath Miller, isn't likely to be ready to start the season following major knee surgery.

“There's a lot of pressure on Todd Haley,” O'Hara said. “He needs to do a better job with this offense. The pressure is on this offense.”

And on this team, which now has only one more day until next season becomes this season.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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