The Steelers lost starting players at Outside Linebacker, Defensive Tackle, Cornerback, Wide Receiver, Offensive Line, Running Back over this off-season and dealt with injuries at Safety, Quarterback and Tight End last year. These positions, with the exception of Defensive Tackle, had their depth tested last year and the oft mentioned phrase "The standard is the standard" did not hold true. The response to this disappointing season, seems to underwhelm. Many have suggested that losses of players like Mike Wallace, Keenan Lewis, and James Harrison will cause a significant downgrade in quality for the team. On paper, we substituted several high talent players for added depth and rookie additions and are set for a drop off from last year's disappointing finish. This metaphorical "paper" neglects to take into account the injuries causing us to depend heavily on our clearly ineffective depth last year.
The Steelers have made moves and drafted to address the depth at Running Back, Outside Linebacker, Wide Receiver, Quarterback, Tight End and Safety. Some of the more important positions in our system. At different points last season these positions were manned by names such as Chris Rainey, Chris Carter, Byron Leftwich, and Ryan Mundy. Similar injury issues at those positions look like they would provide us with LaRod Stephens-Howling, Jarvis Jones, Bruce Gradkowski, and Shamarko Thomas. Even taking into account that two of those players are rookies, these positions have much more solid depth when compared with last year.
This depth is important because of how often that we have had to dip into our depth recently. People pointing to losses such as James Harrison neglect to mention that for the position to play better than last year, his replacement has to beat out the production from a very underwhelming combined performance from James Harrison and his back ups. Obviously, this is much more manageable than matching James Harrison's production earlier in his career. 8 sacks per outside linebacker would be an upgrade in production at this position with the less than stellar play of last year. This concept applies across every position that has seen injuries last year.
The one caveat to their improvement in depth would be the offensive line and defensive line. With the loss of Colon and Starks, the Steelers now have one player, Kelvin Beachum, that currently inspires confidence. We can see that Colbert is aware of this with moves that illicit head scratching such as the signings of Guy Whimper and D'Anthony Batiste. This is why I have singled in on offensive line health as being crucial to this team. Specifically our tackles must avoid injuries. The defensive line has a lack of depth at defensive tackle. Steve McLendon has several players who look like they could be more than camp bodies behind him despite the startling lack of game experience among them. While the lack of depth at these positions constitutes a weak point for this team, the Steelers have solidified depth at many of the other positions and have high hopes for the still very young starters at these positions.
The bar has been set low if we want to improve at each position and the improvement in our depth with normally uninspiring additions like Matt Spaeth make any slide from 8-8 seem unlikely. That said, if we want them to win the division and the superbowl, the Steelers are going to have to avoid demonstrating how much they've improved. We have seen how this team performed when our starters such as Ben Roethlisberger, James Harrison, and Troy Polamalu can play healthy. When every player was healthy and playing their best, that was our ceiling. Last year we saw those same stars on the sideline or playing injured showing us our floor. These moves may have lowered the ceiling, but they certainly raised the floor and with the emphasis placed on "the standard is the standard" mentality, it feels like the Steelers are making a genuine effort to make validate this mindset.