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Steelers insider: Gauging this season easy as 1, 2, 3

| Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, 10:33 p.m.

Football is all about the number three. Three points for a field goal. The first three downs decide the fate of nearly every possession. The first three quarters commonly set up the decisive fourth quarter.

And defensive end Brett Keisel says the third season of a player's career often is pivotal, the one that determines whether he will be a star or a sub.

Because three is such an important number, here are important three-pointers for the upcoming Steelers season — one in which they're widely picked to finish third in the AFC North:

Three most important games

Sept. 16 at Cincinnati: Could set the tone for the season. Will the Steelers quiet James Harrison in his new uniform and send a message that they're still a team to contend with?

Nov. 3 at New England: The Patriots look to be in a bit of disarray, and a victory here sets the Steelers up for a three-game stretch against the Bills, Lions and Browns, with the first two at home.

Nov. 28 at Baltimore: The win at Baltimore last season looked huge at the time. It wasn't. Win there again, and a December that includes the Dolphins, Bengals and Browns at Heinz Field could be a take-charge month for the Steelers.

Three most pivotal players

1. Ben Roethlisberger: Of course. He says he's at the peak of his career. Let's find out.

2. LaMarr Woodley: With Harrison gone, he must be the primary pass-rush generator. If he's not, everything could falter around him.

3. Marcus Gilbert: Roethlisberger's blind-side protector and the man most responsible for making sure the quarterback stays healthy. Nothing is more important to the Steelers than Roethlisberger's health.

Three players you don't know but soon might

1. LB Vince Williams: Was a big-time hitter in college, and the Steelers badly need depth at inside linebacker.

2. OL Joe Long: A practice squad player late last season, he hasn't looked outmanned yet in camp.

3. KR/WR Reggie Dunn: Looks to be the fastest player on the team.

Three new wrinkles

1. The offense will be faster-paced than ever. Not New England-fast or Chip Kelly-fast, but faster than the Steelers are accustomed to playing.

2. Special teams tricks. Danny Smith is innovative and energetic. There won't be something new every game, but there will be gadgetry and different looks.

3. New pressure packages from Dick LeBeau to counter the ever-growing trend toward rapid-pace offenses.

Three things that must happen for the Steelers to succeed

1. The new zone-blocking scheme must work. If it does, running back Le'Veon Bell could have a big rookie season.

2. They can't lose the games they have no business losing, such as Sept. 8 vs. Tennessee, Oct. 27 at Oakland, Nov. 10 vs. Buffalo and Nov. 24 at Cleveland. They dropped three such games last season (Titans, Raiders and Browns), and it doomed their season.

3. Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders must upgrade their numbers and prove to be elusive and reliable receivers who keep the offense going. If they don't, the offense will slow down appreciably.

Three things that can't happen if the Steelers are to succeed

1. Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu can't get hurt, at least not for extended stretches. Polamalu probably won't be the player he was before signing his big contract in 2011, but he needs to get back to being a disruptive and unpredictable force.

2. The players can't start questioning the offense. There was uneasiness last season as Todd Haley imposed his system. This season everyone needs to buy in — and pay the price to make it work.

3. The new players can't play like new players (see Bell, Jarvis Jones, Markus Wheaton), and the old players can't play like they're old (see Polamalu, Brett Keisel, Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark).

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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