About a half decade ago, when "Young Money" was actually a term fans got excited about, Rashard Mendenhall was the featured running back and Ben Roethlisberger was in the prime of his swashbuckling ways, Steelers fans were generally excited about the offense and thought it could actually carry a defense that was beginning to show its age.
Unfortunately, that famously didn't happen. This isn't to say the offense didn't have its moments, with Roethlisberger and Mike Wallace teaming up as the best deep-threat in the league, Mendenhall throwing in 1,000 yard seasons in his injury-free days, and the legendary Hines Ward still contributing heavily during Pittsburgh's Super Bowl XLV team in 2010. But the offense never did turn the page from potential to dominant, which forced not just one change, but several.
First to go was offensive coordinator Bruce Arians following the 2011 season. Obviously, any Steelers expert or fan will tell you this was met with unashamed enthusiasm by so many people who considered Arians a detriment to the offense.
But as it turned out, the subtraction of Arians--followed by the addition of Todd Haley as the offensive coordinator--was just one of several personnel changes.
The Young Money trio has turned into a solo act, as Antonio Brown is the only remaining member--even though the title "Young Money" seems like a phrase attached to a bygone era. At 26, Brown is now the grizzled vet, as Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant and rookie Sammie Coates represent youthful receiver triplets ripe with potential. With Ward long-since retired and out of the NFL, Brown is sort of the new leader of the wide-outs. While still not old enough to assume Ward's endearing nickname of "Papa Smurf," Brown is now the superstar the younger receivers take their cues from in-terms of work-ethic and preparation.
With regards to the offensive line, only the harshest Arians critic would ignore the fact that the unit was sub-par for the majority of his time as a game-planner, as the organization only finally started the very necessary overhaul in his next-to-last season in Pittsburgh with the drafting of center Maurkice Pouncey. No offensive lineman remains from the Super Bowl XLIII team. Of the current starters along the line, only Pouncey contributed heavily during the Super Bowl XLV season. Guard Ramon Foster didn't become a full-time starter until 2011. Tackle Marcus Gilbert was a rookie in 2011, starting 13 games mostly out of necessity. Meanwhile, guard David DeCastro and tackle Kelvin Beachum were still in college. Once a much-maligned unit, today, the Steelers head into 2015 with an offensive line that's considered one of the best in the NFL and with room to grow even better.
Obviously, the addition of Le'Veon Bell at running back has turned the position on its ear in Pittsburgh, as the third year man out of Michigan State has emerged as one of the best in the league and certainly the best the Steelers have had since the prime years of Jerome Bettis. And what Bell can do for the offense as a dual threat is night and day compared to what anyone thought Mendenhall could do.
And, without a doubt, there's Roethlisberger making it all happen. While he still possesses that swashbuckler mentality and uses it to great effect, at 33, he appears more Manning-like these days. He seems like the leader everyone always wanted him to be years ago, when he was unwilling or unable to accept that role. After struggling a bit to accept and adapt to Haley's philosophy (and perhaps Haley struggling a bit to adapt to what his quarterback liked and wanted), the bugs have been worked out in a big way, and you no longer hear or read about any rift or hard feelings between the two. While many openly welcomed the "rougher" Haley and happily bid adieu to the Roethlisberger/Arians bro-fest, fact is, a coordinator's role with his players should be more harmonious than hard-nosed. And that's especially the case in the working relationship of a veteran quarterback who's been to a few Super Bowls and his offensive coordinator.
The Steelers now have the talent, the maturity of their already great and accomplished quarterback, and an offensive philosophy that's fine-tuned and clicking.
And you know what? There's no doubt this offense will produce in 2015 and be a force to be reckoned with more often than not. Roethlisberger, Brown and Bell are now considered the best combination of passer, receiver and running back in in NFL, and it's a very good bet they'll repeat their 2014 performances and help the offense finish near the top of the league for a second straight season.
Why wouldn't one be so brash and so bold? I've spent about 800 words heaping praise on the offense, and I haven't even mentioned Heath Miller until right now.
Remember in the mid-to-late 2000's, when the Steelers defense was in its prime under Dick LeBeau? Did anyone have any doubts in June that the unit would dominate against the run, terrorize the quarterback and, ultimately, finish near the top of the league in most important statistical categories?
The defense was just brimming with talent. The unit lost defensive end Kimo Von Oelhoffen after Super Bowl XL and replaced him with Brett Keisel. In 2004, Pittsburgh lost Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton to a season-ending injury and experienced no fall-off with his back-up, Chris Hoke, starting 10-games. Safety Chris Hope left via free-agency in 2006 and was replaced by Ryan Clark. Book-end linebackers Joey Porter and Clark Haggans were replaced by James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.
There was a time when safety Troy Polamalu created the types of nightmares and match-up problems for opposing offensive coaches that Bell probably creates for defensive coaches today.
The Steelers were considered Super Bowl contenders each and every year, and that's because they had a defense good enough to get the job done.
That's the weird thing about football. Even though the Steelers had Roethlisberger under center and he was obviously the most important piece to the puzzle, if a lesser talent was under center, Pittsburgh would still have been considered a legit Super Bowl team in those days, thanks to the defense. That was the case for many years under Bill Cowher when the defense was dominant and passers like Neil O'Donnell, Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart and even Tommy Maddox were leading the offense.
Maybe it's because we've been taught for so long that "defense wins championships," but the football teams with offenses that are superior to their defenses, they don't seem to get taken as seriously when the Super Bowl talk begins. However, history tells us that offense is every bit as important as defense, as it's hard to find previous Super Bowl winners who didn't have really productive offenses.
The Steelers defense is a major concern heading into 2015. Yes, there's optimism with some of the newer guys, but there are also many positions up for grabs, including both outside linebacker spots and a position or two or three in the secondary.
Getting back to history. What is undeniable about Super Bowl-winning defenses over the years is they were opportunistic and took the football away at a decent enough rate. But while the average amount of takeaways for the previous 49 Super Bowls winners was a shade under 37, two of the past three champions--the Ravens and Patriots--took the football away 25 times, which so far has been the minimum amount for any champion.
Pittsburgh's defense doesn't have to be dominant in 2015. Much like the Steelers offense in 2008, it just has to get by and capitalize on as many opportunities as possible. Maybe take the football away a few more times; maybe get after the quarterback a little better.
It took a lot of upheaval to transform the Steelers offense from potential to world-class, but that's what it is today. And it's certainly good enough to carry even an average defense all the way to the Super Bowl.