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Don’t be surprised if Steelers shake up the roster for 2017

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Change is no longer on the horizon for the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers; it’s upon us. Head coach Mike Tomlin’s message is clear: perform well, or be replaced.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers are a rock-solid organization, where change typically occurs at a glacial pace.

If you ever find yourself doubting that, just repeat this three times: three head coaches in 48 years. Think about that, and consider: they haven’t fired a head coach since Bill Austin in 1968. Current head coach Mike Tomlin, who was born in 1972, wasn’t even a twinkle in his dad’s eye when that happened.

By comparison. the Cleveland Browns are on their 19th head coach since the day the Steelers fired Austin.

This is not an organization given to knee-jerk reactions, a trend which often extends to the players, too.

Consider: 2013 first-round draft pick Jarvis Jones was given four years to take control of the starting right outside linebacker position, despite almost being able to tally his career sack total on a single hand.

So it would be shocking if the team made some significant change to the starting lineup in 2017, right?

Eh, maybe not so shocking.

Despite taking loyalty to the extreme in today’s sports environment, where free agency has basically left most fans rooting for a uniform more than a given set of players, the Steelers have often balanced that loyalty with pragmatism. They let offensive coordinator Bruce Arians go when it became clear that his offensive philosophy was at least partly to blame for the team’s franchise quarterback missing games due to injury. They’ve let players go when they have found themselves in trouble with the law — Bam Morris, Santonio Holmes and Cedrick Wilson immediately come to mind.

In other words, they lean toward doing what’s best for each player, but balance it with what is best for the team.

There are two extenuating circumstances that are, most likely, firing off the MUST-WIN-NOW alarm klaxons all throughout the team’s front office: two of the franchise’s three most-critical players could have as little as one season left. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger spent the off-season pondering retirement, while running back Le’Veon Bell isn’t even technically under contract for 2017, yet — though he has stated on social media that he plans to join the team on September 1, the day after their final pre-season game.

Because of all that, it wouldn’t be the least bit shocking to see significant, relatively unexpected, and most-definitely out-of-character changes before the final roster is set.

The most obvious of those changes were more than implied following Sunday’s come-from-behind, pre-season win over the defending NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons, during which the starting secondary played about a half-step north of dreadful. Presuming cornerbacks Ross Cockrell and William Gay will be starters may just end up being a bit too presumptuous, as free-agent acquisition Coty Sensabaugh got first-team reps in place of Cockrell this week, while Gay sat in favor of Mike Hilton, who pretty much stole the Training Camp show this year.

But there are less-obvious changes that could happen, too. For instance, when camp started, tight end Xavier Grimble’s roster spot seemed largely secure. But, thanks to a less-than-lackluster performance that included regularly dropping routine passes, Grimble is on the verge of being eclipsed (pun intended) by Jake McGee, who wasn’t even acquired until after camp started. Even Sammie Coates, who did a fairly solid job of filling in for Martavis Bryant as the team’s primary deep threat last year until an injury in week five derailed his season, isn’t safe thanks to a battle with Justin Hunter.

Tyson Alualu, a former first-round pick who the team acquired as a free agent, has become the top backup for both defensive end positions, which has allowed L.T. Walton to slide back inside to his more natural position at nose tackle. That’s spelling near-certain doom for Dan McCullers, whose performance never came close to matching his enormous stature.

Even at safety, a significant shakeup could occur. Robert Golden, who started the 2016 season at strong safety, could end up losing his spot to Jacob Hagen, who the team cut last year when trimming the final roster to 53. Golden might have been the worst performer in the secondary on Sunday, and that’s saying a lot, considering Cockrell and Gay, at times, might as well have not even been on the field.

The reality is that some of these things need to change. Albert Einstein allegedly once said the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over, expecting different results. The Steelers have always lived by the uber-conservative mantra of staying the course. But, when your window of certainty is closing rapidly, it’s time to swing for the fences. You might still strike out, but at least you go down swinging. As of now, the defending champion New England Patriots look, once again, to have the inside track in the AFC. If the Steelers have any hopes of beating them, they can’t keep living by the same, tried-but-tired formula.

The team’s roster is full of talent, but there are clearly areas where improvement is needed. If there weren’t, we might have played the Falcons in a meaningful contest in February, rather than a meaningless pre-season game in August. If you think bringing in a few gifted-but-still-raw players to spend two years as backups is going to help this team win now, you should back up a few paragraphs and re-read that bit about a certain physicist of German heritage, and keep re-reading it until you have that Aha! moment of extreme clarity.

Something. Has. To. Give.

Right now, Cockrell and Gay look like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dam, trying to hold back a potential flood of change.

The dam is leaking. Badly. Change is coming quickly.