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5 Things The Steelers Need To Do This Offseason

From mental and physical conditioning to adjustments to offensive and defensive philosophy, we offer up five things the Steelers must focus on in order to prepare for a better 2013 season.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Alan Robinson of the Tribune-Review gave his list of his 10 ways to fix the Steelers, and in a way, this is a rip-off of that, but we're going to do this a little differently.

"Fix" is such a bold word. How do you "fix" injuries? By not getting injured, I suppose. It eliminates intrigue.

We're going to aim for 5 Things The Steelers Need To Do This Offseason. Some are vital concerns, some are suggestions and some are ways to maintain the status quo.

Stay in shape, keep weight down

I get the whole "we're too image-oriented as a society" bit. I also understand the massive obesity problem we have in this country. It's an unfortunate reality many professional football players must live and play at weights well above what would be considered healthy, but such is the nature of the game.

Other players, such as safety Troy Polamalu, are not doing themselves any favors by planning to use training camp as their way to get into shape. This offseason is about their diets more than their training regimens. Adding weight is linked to a variety of ailments, including joint injuries and soft tissue pain. Stay in shape, come into camp healthy, limber and conditioned.

Ya listening, LaMarr Woodley?

Pass rushing innovation

The Steelers finished 17th in the NFL with 35 sacks in 2011. They upped that to 37 in 2012, but fell to 24th. Translation: other teams are sacking the quarterback more often, and the average mark of 35 in 2011 became the below average mark of 37 the following year.

A fair argument can be made in regards to the influx of pass rushing specialists in a variety of different defensive looks, but that's also the exact point here. The Steelers defense doesn't suffer from a lack of innovation, and we saw plenty of new wrinkles this season, as we do every year. This time around, it was the movement of inside linebackers Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons outside in some situations, looking to flood the edge. There were variations of the same thing, bringing outside linebacker James Harrison inside, rushing over the A gap.

These innovations were successful, particularly over the second half of the year, in terms of pressure if not sacks. The Steelers dominated nearly every quarterback they faced - they went eight straight games without allowing more than 200 yards passing from any quarterback. Some of that is credited to coverage, but we can't discount the pressure that forced bad, hurried throws, throwaways and dud screens.

Continuing along those lines, this team should look to bring in a dynamic pass rusher to do exactly what Harrison was doing, and what current players like Clay Matthews and Aldon Smith are doing. They're technically edge defenders, but they stunt, shift and shoot all over the defensive line. Finding that kind of match-up nightmare-inducing pass rusher is key in this year's draft.

Barkevious Mingo sounds pretty gall durn nice, but judging by his ability to do everything I described, and seeing the value players with that kind of game now have in this league, it's highly unlikely he'll last until the 17th pick, but if he does, he'd look rather nice in black and gold.

Creating more team-oriented rushing attack

While it's easy to make jokes about OT Marcus Gilbert finishing second to "torn ACL" as league leading injury causes, he'll be back in 2012, and he'll likely be expected to fill a starting role. It's a bit early to suggest whether he'll be on the left or right side, but Mike Adams will be on the other side, creating a unique combination of tackles. Both are more finesse than maul, but with the power and explosiveness found in the Steelers' interior offensive line - LG Willie Colon, C Maurkice Pouncey and RG David DeCastro - the Steelers find themselves with the interesting problem of following any one particular identity in running the ball.

Are they a power running team? Lead-blocking off guard pulls with a fullback in the backfield, or more precision, doubling down on prone ends with speed off the edge, slashing forward?

At the risk of being too optimistic, it seems like they can do both. In that spirit, taking a look at a fast and strong running back with outstanding vision in this draft would be helpful. The Steelers attempted to run zone earlier this season with fairly poor results. The athleticism the team had at left tackle didn't help things, and with Colon getting used to his new left guard position and the athletic step back in Ramon Foster instead of David DeCastro, it wasn't going to get far.

Those issues likely go away in 2013, and a back more suited for zone running over the ones they have could be something they'd like to have.

Mental strength in Situational Football

Depending on where you sit in terms of opinions on intellectual development, there are a lot of different ways to go with this. One thing is clear, whether metaphysical or not, this team did not perform well in several fourth quarters this season. At the beginning and at the end, from the quarterback to the wide receivers to the defense, critical errors were made late in games and the result was going 3-5 in games decided by three points or less.

Teams not committing those errors late in games are general more disciplined, top to bottom. There's something to be said about not playing to lose vs. playing to win. At least playing to win has the bailout of aggressive mistakes.

The Steelers didn't make aggressive mistakes in losing many of those games. Both offensive and defensive lines were overwhelmed down the stretch of many of those games. Key sacks were allowed, fumbles occurred and turnovers were forced on offense. Extra yards were given up, assignments were missed and tackles were blown on defense. There is a physical element to these things, absolutely, but this offseason can be effectively utilized getting this team honed into critical situations - situational football, as Steelers coach Mike Tomlin likes to say.

Keep consistent with mindful approach to the salary cap

Salary cap restrictions are the ultimate equalizers in the NFL. It's not a coincidence many teams continue to be among the best in the game over the last several years.

Three keys to maintaining success in the salary-cap restricted NFL:

  • Get a franchise quarterback
  • Maintain a core group of roughly 11-14 players to whom you give extensions and build around them
  • Fill in the rest of the contributing team with rookies/inexpensive rookies, and select veteran free agents
The Steelers have done all of these things over the years, but hit a bit of a snag due to the draft success they had in the mid-2000s through the rest of the decade. Certainly a nice problem to have. But having successful mid-round draft classes and players who outperform their initial draft positions does complicate things. Having a player who was such a big part of team's game plan - WR Mike Wallace - forces a team to redesign its focus. The time it takes to readjust to that new direction is really the mark of a great team.

The New England Patriots were a receiver-dominated offense in 2007, which was a departure from its ground-heavy and defensive approach in previous years. They had success in both, but could see it wasn't going to last. The team went big into tight ends, aiming to largely feature two of them receiving out of run formations, and mixing in a slew of multi-faceted running backs.

That reinvention is a big part of the reason they are still one of the league's best offensive teams despite having a completely different approach than they did four years ago.

The Steelers are transforming themselves from the aerial assaulting team they were in 2009-11 back to a ball-control, ground-dominant unit. Injuries hampered their ability to do that consistently in 2012, but when they had the right group of players - core guys like Colon, Pouncey and TE Heath Miller and guys like Foster and RBs Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman at times playing well above their salaries - it was working.

They'll look to continue bolstering a strong group of core players with inexpensive younger players (NT Steve McLendon, CB Cortez Allen, possibly LB Sean Spence), while adding more of them in the draft. They really have to aim for the future with this incoming class.