Nowhere for the Steelers to go but up from here

Jamie McDonald

The long-term view of this team sees lots of players who won't be around, but for the immediate future, there's only one way the team can move.

PITTSBURGH -- So, where do the Pittsburgh Steelers go from here?

Anywhere has to be better, right? One wouldn't think they could get much worse. However, how much better can they be? That's the better question.

Right now, it appears unlikely that the Steelers can even salvage this season, let alone make the playoffs. And make no mistake, those two points aren't the same thing. To salvage this season would be to show steady improvement and, obviously, win some games. Although a modest 9-7 record might be good enough to win the lowly AFC North Division.

This mess that is the Steelers 2013 season goes much deeper. Overall player evaluation and development is at the lowest point it's been in decades. Backups to those veterans cut loose in the past couple of years have just not performed up to the standard previously set by those players. The next man up, as it were, has been below the line more often than not.

This isn't a one-year fix. If the Steelers missed horrendously in their evaluation of the offensive linemen -- second-round picks with tackles Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert and a first-rounder on David DeCastro -- that unit will need to be revamped. Gilbert's play has been solid the past three weeks, and he appears to be settling in on the right side. Adams can't play left tackle, clearly, so Levi Brown has been brought in for a shot.

For those to subscribe to the notion that the Steelers are in panic mode or why else would they bring in a new player now, that might be true. However, Brown basically costs the Steelers about $300,000, because the Cardinals are paying the bulk of the more than $3 million that he is owed. The money is a minor issue, and so is giving up a low-round draft pick, likely a sixth- or seventh-rounder. So, it's a no-brainer. If he can help, that's great. If not, it doesn't matter anyway. So, despite what Brown has accomplished, or not accomplished, as far as Arizona is concerned, it can't hurt to try him out.

Maybe the move actually will help Adams in the long run. This demotion could help him refocus and maybe even compete with Gilbert for the right tackle job. Adams did pretty well there before he got hurt last year. In fact, the Steelers were extremely successful running the ball with him there.

This also frees up Kelvin Beachum to be a backup guard, the position he originally was drafted to play. And it keeps Guy Whimper on the sideline. That's the main thing. An eighth-year veteran, Whimper wasn't good during training camp. He was a backup tackle in the spring and early on in camp, but by the midpoint he was moved to guard and only made the final, 53-man roster because he's a veteran. His competition was weak as well.

The defensive line also could need revamped. Former No. 1 pick Ziggy Hood has underperformed, and Brett Keisel -- even though he's playing pretty well -- certainly is in the twilight of his career. They are the ends. Nose tackle Steve McLendon has not elevated his play. He did well in a backup role to Casey Hampton the last two years, but while his playing time increased this season his play has not. Backup Cam Heyward, another former No. 1 pick, appears to have more of an upside than Hood and actually has been solid when in there as a pass-rusher. His role needs to expand to see if he can handle more snaps.

Either Kion Wilson and Vince Williams could eventually replace Larry Foote for good, but neither is ready now. Lots of growing pains with those guys, as previous inside linebacker draft picks Stevenson Sylvester and Sean Spence have not had panned out. Spence's status is still up in the air during year two since his serious knee injury in the preseason, 2012.

The secondary also will eventually need revamped with 12th-year veteran Ryan Clark and 11th-year pros Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor undoubtedly on the down side in their careers. Cortez Allen, Shamarko Thomas and Robert Golden could have bright futures, but they are still question marks.

Offensively, the play of the guys up front basically dictates how effective quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can be through the air or the running backs on the ground. Wideout Antonio Brown has been spectacular, and rookie running back Le'Veon Bell was a bright spot in his debut last week. But there hasn't been much other than that. If Heath Miller can return to form in his ninth NFL season, the production could increase. But, here again, it all depends on the offensive line. And that's still a big question mark.

So, back to the original question. Where do the Steelers go from here? Considering how poorly they've played so far, the only direction is up.

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