Offseason Will Be Filled with Questions

Ben Roethlisberger had just taken full blame for Saturday night’s 31-29 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in an AFC Wild-Card playoff game when he was asked where the Pittsburgh Steelers were right now.

Roethlisberger stated the obvious, “going home,” then offered this:

“We are a worn-down team,” he said. “We’re physically drained, mentally drained. It’s tough. We have to look at it and figure out how to not get that way next year.”

First-year Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said all season the NFL is a game of attrition, and the Steelers weren’t very good at it. They lost four of their last five games and also suffered numerous injuries late in the season.

Tomlin worked his team hard in training camp, and the results showed through the preseason and the beginning of the regular season. They started the season with seven victories in their first nine games and were considered to be one of the top three teams in the AFC.

The Steelers just couldn’t maintain that level through the course of the season. Did that look like the top-ranked defense in the NFL this last month?

Figuring out how to be stronger down the stretch next season will be just one of many offseason quests by Tomlin and Kevin Colbert, director of football operations.

While Tomlin improved on last season’s 8-8 campaign and did as well in his first postseason as former coach Bill Cowher did in his, you get the feeling the Steelers could be headed for a non-playoff stretch in the next few seasons unless some big changes take place.

First and foremost, the offensive line needs major help, especially once left guard Alan Faneca leaves via free agency. Center Sean Mahan proved that he is not the answer at center.

The Steelers will head into April’s draft so in desperate need of offensive linemen, they’ll be forced to take the best one available with their late first-round pick, even if a player at another position grades much higher.

Other problems on offense the Steelers will need to address in the offseason are depth at wide receiver, Roethlisberger’s contract situation and fresh legs at running back.

On defense, the Steelers will lose linebacker Clark Haggans to free agency, but they have LaMarr Woodley ready to go and need to get production from last season’s first-round pick, Lawrence Timmons.

The defensive line was in good shape until Aaron Smith went down with an injury. And the secondary could use another good cornerback and a healthy Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu in 2008.

On the coaching staff, special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky and assistant Amos Jones could/should be let go because of the numerous problems there this season, offensive line coach Larry Zierlein’s job could be in jeopardy, and it wouldn’t be surprising if defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, now 70, retires.

It should make for an interesting offseason, as always, for the Steelers. At least one good sign is the players already recognize they have a lot of room for improvement.

“We all have things to learn – (Tomlin), the team, the rest of the coaches,” Roethlisberger said. “I’m sure we’ll learn it and come back and be a better team.”

Hopefully for them, it just won’t be for half of a season again.