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Steelers look for offense to take off next season

| Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012

Guard Trai Essex is one of the Steelers' 11 unrestricted free agents, and he hopes to return in 2012. Among his reasons: He doesn't want to miss out on the fun.

Essex is among those in the organization who think the offense has a chance to take off next season.

"The sky is the limit," said Essex, who was drafted by the Steelers in 2005. "Once we get a consistent o-line and stop getting hurt all of the time, we will be fine."

That may be easier said than done, given the Steelers' continuity issues up front. But addressing offensive line questions this offseason, one that will bring more change than usual to one of the NFL's most stable franchises, could be the key to unlocking the offense's potential.

The Steelers are flush with talent at the skill positions, particularly at receiver. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is in his prime and headed to his second Pro Bowl. There is uncertainty at running back, with starter Rashard Mendenhall having to come back from a torn ACL. But Isaac Redman, in his second start last Sunday, gashed the Denver Broncos for 121 yards rushing in a 29-23 overtime loss.

His performance in the AFC wild-card game showed that the former undrafted free agent can be more than a dependable short-yardage back. And he was only one of eight key players on offense who had no more than three years of experience this season, meaning the unit has considerably more upside than the Steelers' aging defense.

"We have all the talent in the world on the offensive side of the ball to be the No. 1 offense in the league," Redman said. "To have all of the talent that we do, we kind of look at where we finished this year with the offense and are like, 'We're better than that.'"

The Steelers ranked 12th in the NFL in total offense (372.3 yards per game) but tied for 21st in scoring (20.3 points per game).

The disconnect between the two can probably be traced to the offense's struggles after it got in scoring range.

The Steelers scored touchdowns 50.9 percent of the time they were inside the opponent's 20-yard line, ranking 18th of 32 teams.

"One aspect of the game where we have to get better is in the red zone," said receiver Antonio Brown, who had a breakout season. "Maybe I should have (made) some more plays, so I'll just blame me. I think it's all about looking within yourself as an individual and seeing what you could have done better, and I'm pretty sure that the other guys feel the same way."

The struggles of an offensive line that used 10 starting combinations in 17 games were magnified inside the 20-yard line. Staying relatively healthy in 2012 -- and developing cohesion -- would go a long way toward the Steelers' improving up front.

The team figures to address the line early in this year's draft, if not with their first-round pick. The Steelers have taken All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey and tackle Marcus Gilbert in rounds one and two, respectively, of the past two drafts.

They could target a guard with one of their early picks this year.

Upgrading the line won't be the only significant step the Steelers take to improve the offense.

Roethlisberger and the receivers will have an entire offseason to work together, something they did sparingly last year because of the lockout.

Roethlisberger talked to Brown and wideout Emmanuel Sanders about that after the loss to the Broncos, and their conversation didn't end in the hushed visiting locker room at Denver's Sports Authority Stadium.

"Talking to Ben on the plane, we're going to get together this offseason, and we're going to continue to grow as an offense," said Sanders, who missed five games because of injuries. "The goal is always to be the No. 1 offense, so we're headed in that direction."

Teams, per the new collective bargaining agreement, are allowed to have 10 voluntary practices during the offseason as well as at least five minicamp practices that are mandatory.

Roethlisberger indicated he and the receivers also will work on their own.

"We can be great," Roethlisberger said. "We just have to put in the work in the offseason. A lot of that is going to fall on me."

He is not the only one who thinks the Steelers need to take a sense of urgency into the offseason.

"The lack of work that we had this summer with the lockout, you could tell that kind of hurt us," Redman said. "In the offseason we just need to come together and get that timing and have that edge on every other team. We just need to work harder."

Additional Information:

By the numbers

By the numbers

Here is a statistical look at the Steelers during the 2011 regular season:

4: NFL rank in third-down conversions

23: NFL rank in sacks per pass play (1 for every 12.8)

45.9: Third-down conversion rate

49.1: Mike Wallace's average receiving yards in final eight games

53.9: Antonio Brown's average receiving yards in first eight games

74.2: Conversion rate on field goal attempts, tied for 31st in the NFL

84.6: Brown's average receiving yards in final eight games

90.1: Ben Roethlisberger's passer rating, the third-lowest of his career

100.0: Wallace's receiving yards in first eight games

631: Receiving yards by tight end Heath Miller, the second-highest single-season total of his career


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