Not many teams can go from a 12-4 record one year to and 8-8 record the following season and still be considered better than over half of the rest of the league. According to Pro Football Talk, the Pittsburgh Steelers can.
Usually preseason power rankings are understood to be more casual entertainment than insightful projection, especially when teams are only judged against the teams in their divisions and conference for playoff consideration while power rankings pit all teams against each other in a single listing. However, this ranking may be more accurate than first perceived.
Considering how the team squandered a 5-3 record in the first half of the year only to miss the playoffs by going 3-5 in the second half, its understandable to say such a decline is not indicative of a top-tier team. However, this isn't just any team. This is the Steelers. This is Ben Roethlisberger. This is Troy Polamalu. This is Todd Haley's shiny new offense, and Dick LeBeau's tough old defense. This is a team which knows how and has the skill to win football games, even if their performance doesn't always match their potential.
Injuries to Roethlisberger and Polamalu contributed to inconsistency last year, as did the health issues of James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Ike Taylor, Marcus Gilbert, David DeCastro, Mike Adams and Rashard Mendenhall. All are expected to be fully healthy when camp opens in a couple weeks, however injuries are never expected. No one will ever know what record the team would have posted had some or all of these injuries not happened.
When you consider how the off-season saw exchanges of Mike Wallace for Markus Wheaton, Harrison for Jarvis Jones, Mendenhall for Le'Veon Bell -- the team lost a lot of veteran experience to believe there won't be a few growing pains along the way.
However, unlike most teams, the Steelers have maintained contingency plans. Harrison's departure was softened by the presence of Jason Worilds, who will keep Jarvis from being forced into a prominent role immediately. Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman insure the same patience for Bell; and Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery do the same for Wheaton.
The Steelers have had disappointing seasons in recent past. They went 6-10 in 2003; only to go 15-1 in 2004 and win the Super Bowl in 2005. They went 8-8 in 2006 - including a dismal stretch of losses against sub-.500 teams - only to post a 10-6 record in 2007 and win another Super Bowl in 2008. Pittsburgh followed up their 2009 non-playoff-worthy 9-7 record with two consecutive 12-4 seasons, including a Super Bowl appearance in 2010 - a loss to the Green Bay Packers. In other words, one bad season doesn't really mean anything.
The Steelers organization and their fanbase may be optimistic about the direction their team is taking toward the future, but concerns over today are not without warrant. Perhaps their 15th placement in this list is rather appropriate. It acknowledges this team is better than most, while accepting the real chance of failure because of inexperience and possible medically induced instability.
Pittsburgh likes being an underdog anyway. In fact, they thrive on it.
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