by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

There is an opinion shared by several AFC insiders that the Pittsburgh Steelers might be on the verge of slipping from their unquestioned perch of the past several years. What’s hard for some modern-day fans to believe is that there was indeed a time when wondering if the Steelers were ready to slip from any perch seemed about as far-fetched as a man landing on the moon (and we know what eventually happened with the latter).

But there were days when the Steelers were the laughingstock of the NFL. Pre-merger Pittsburgh was indeed the lovable loser of the NFL, the Chicago Cubs of the gridiron (hard as that might be for some modern-day fans to fathom), the poor sisters of the league who would absorb heavy beatings almost every year. And the late ‘60s were a particularly desolate period of time for the Steeler franchise, playing those days in old Pitt Stadium after spending many seasons cramped into the Pirates’ old Forbes Field, which was essentially just down the street at the edge of the Pitt campus.

We hardly expect Mike Tomlin’s 2012 crew to sink to those depths from the mid-to-late ‘60s, and few born after 1960 can remember a time when the Steelers were a punching bag. But it’s worth reminding new-age Pittsburgh fans about the franchise’s dark ages which we recall so well from our earlier publsihing days at TGS, an era long before Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert, Mean Joe Greene and all of those other household gridiron names appeared on the scene.

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From the franchise’s inception into the ‘60s, the Steelers had never as much won their division or appeared in a championship game. Things finally got a bit interesting in the early ‘60s, as Pittsburgh posted a couple of winning records in 1962 & ‘63 under HC Buddy Parker, staying in the hunt for the Eastern Conference title until the final day of the regular season in the latter year.

But the Steelers went into another steep decline despite the move from Forbes Field to Pitt Stadium, a real football facility, in 1964. Parker’s trade of top WR Buddy Dial to the Cowboys, however, would inadvertently wreck the offense that year, as rookie replacement Paul Martha (who played his college ball at the same Pitt Stadium) was a bust as a wideout before later becoming a serviceable defensive back. The Steelers slipped to 5-9 in 1964, but that was good compared to what happened in 1965. That year, Parker resigned just two weeks before the beginning of the season, famously stating, “I can’t win with this bunch of stiffs.” Promoted assistant Mike Nixon then oversaw a brutal 2-12 campaign in which young QB Bill Nelsen, playing on a sore pair of knees, took unspeakable punishment behind a sieve-like offensive line, while top RB John Henry Johnson, a 1000-yard rusher the previous year, was sidelined almost the entire season by a bad knee.

Bill Austin, who had coached on Lombardi’s Green Bay staffs in the early ’60s and most recently on Harland Svare’s Rams staff in ‘65, was hired to replace Nixon and turn things around in 1966. But despite the presence of a couple of promising young weapons on the offensive side (TE John Hilton and punishing RB Willie Asbury) and an occasional ability to light up the scoreboard, the Steelers continued to lose, posting a 5-8-1 mark in ‘66. It was more of the same in ‘67, as the Steelers limped home at 4-9-1, with QB Nelsen again limited by knee problems, forcing Austin to use former TCU QB Kent Nix as the starter. Nelsen, in a fortuitous bit of luck for him, was traded to the contending Browns the following year for QB Dick Shiner, who would share duties with Nix in ‘68. Thus liberated from Pittsburgh, Nelsen would soon blossom as a top-flight NFL QB, supplanting Frank Ryan as the Cleveland starter and leading the Brownies to back-to-back NFL title games.

The Steelers, however, continued to lose, although they maintained their reputation as a no-nonsense bunch that preferred the physical nature of the sport as opposed to the more chic passing game that was being popularized around the league. One of the noted toughs from the Pittsburgh defenses of that era was ornery LB Bill Saul, a rugged, toothless bruiser from Penn State who was featured in one of NFL Films’ first memorable specials. Saul was so tough that he would chide opponents such as the Browns and their QB Frank Ryan to play some “real football” and quit throwing the ball around the yard. That rugged reputation of Steeler teams is one thing that has endured from the dark ages of Pittsburgh football.

But the days were indeed dark in the late ‘60s, especially ‘68, when the team collapsed to another 2-12 mark and prompted the dismissal of Austin, with one of Don Shula’s trusted aides from Baltimore, Chuck Noll, the next coach to get the assignment of rebuilding the Steelers franchise.

We all know what followed, although success didn’t come overnight. Noll’s first team in 1969 finished 1-13, bringing Pittsburgh’s 5-year mark at the end of the ‘60s to an odorous 14-54-2. It wasn’t until the merger, the bold move to the AFC with the Browns and Colts, and the opening of new Three Rivers Stadium in 1970 that the Noll Steelers began to catch an updraft.

Owner Art Rooney was always gracious in defeat, however, with an attitude that “somebody has to lose games in this league.” Which effectively endeared the Rooney family to a generation of football fans who were genuinely thrilled when the Steelers finally emerged as a force in the early ‘70s.

If anyone deserved a taste of victory, it was certainly the cigar-chomping Mr. Rooney, who was finally able to enjoy success when his team, loaded with future Hall Of Famers, won the Super Bowl four times in a six-season span between 1974-79, arguably one of the greatest eras for a team in pro football history.

Fast-forward to the present, however, and the thought persists that despite last season’s 12-4 record, 2012 could be a transition year for the Men of Steel. Moreover, one wonders if the tread might be wearing a bit thin on the tires of 30-year-old QB Ben Roethlisberger, who has absorbed quite a beating in his previous eight seasons in the league and has many wondering if the constant pounding might indicate the beginning of the downside of his career.

Roethlisberger was definitely damaged goods last season, when injuries to his right shoulder, right thumb, and left ankle left him a shell of himself and partially contributed to the wild card round exit at the hands of Tim Tebow and underdog Denver. Big Ben did pass for 4077 yards a year ago, but Tomlin was not about to sit idly by and watch Roethlisberger be subject to more punishment this fall after suffering 40 sacks last fall. Which is a main reason Pittsburgh took offensive linemen (Stanford G David DeCastro and Ohio State T Mike Adams) with its first two picks in the draft .

The Steelers also believe they have the answer to their QB depth issues behind Big Ben with veteran Byron Leftwich, who missed last season with a broken arm but was re-signed in the offseason to provide experienced cover for Roethlisberger.

Tomlin nonetheless altered the offensive recipe in the offseason, with longtime o.c. Bruce Arians (who subsequently inked with the Colts) not retained and former Chiefs HC and Cards o.c. Todd Haley enlisted to oversee a new-look “O” that will look a bit different than the bombs-away Arians version.

Instead, the Haley offense will theoretically be more adept at moving the ball in shorter increments while retaining the deep-ball potential, while also adding some no-huddle into the mix. None of the latter was on display in the preseason opener vs. the Eagles, though sources say more will gradually be implemented as the exhibition season progresses.

Still, some observers are wary of the Haley addition, noting that his brusque interpersonal skills might not prove a good fit for the existing Steelers who became used to Arians’ low-key demeanor. We’d keep a watch on this situation as it develops throughout the fall.

There are some other concerns with the Pittsburgh strike force, although one might resolve itself soon if homerun WR Mike Wallace (left; team-best 72 catches last year) ends his holdout in time for the regular-season opener at Denver. Wallace and Antonio Brown (69 catches a year ago) form a dangerous wideout combo; Emmanuel Sanders and Brown not quite so much. Veteran Hines Ward, whose production had tailed off in recent years but nonetheless served a leadership role in the clubhouse, retired in the offseason, creating another potential void that might be difficult to immediately fill.

Moreover, RB Rashard Mendenhall (3367 YR and 30 TDs the past three seasons) remains on the mend from ACL surgery and might not be ready until well after the regular season commences. Isaac Redman, who ran physically in the playoff loss at Denver but lacks Mendenhall’s dimensions, and smallish Florida rookie Chris Rainey (who has opened some eyes in training camp) will try to fill in until further notice.

Meanwhile, the OL will be looking to work rookies DeCastro and Adams into the mix after an injury-plagued 2011 which resulted in yet another ACL injury to OT Max Starks, who remains on the PUP in preseason and whose status for the regular season remains in doubt. DeCastro and Adams were both in the starting lineup for the preseason opener vs. Philadelphia.

At least one can usually count upon the Steelers to play solid defense, and veteran coordinator Dick LeBeau’s “D” ranked best in the league in yards and points allowed a year ago. But the “transition” word is being affixed to the stop unit as well after four longtime vets (DE Aaron Smith, LB James Farrior, NT Chris Hoke, and CB William Gay) departed in the offseason.

Moreover, star LB James Harrison and NT Casey Hampton (right) are both nursing delicate knees in training camp at Latrobe, and their availability for September remains in doubt.

With Smith gone and Hampton slow to recover from his offseason ACL surgery, the DL is likely to have a different look in the early going; it’s possible LeBeau might be forced to plug U of Washington rookie NT Alameda Ta’amu into the starting lineup much sooner than expected, although 3rd-year Troy University product DT Steve McLendon looked good in the preseason opener vs. the Eagles.

There are still plenty of playmakers left on the platoon, including Pro Bowl safeties Troy Polamalu (left; concussion history becoming something of a concern) and Ryan Clark, and DE Brett Keisel and CB Ike Taylor are stalwarts. The “D” also allowed single-digit points in four of the last five regular-season games a year ago.

But with the possibility that more than half of the starting lineup for the Denver opener will be different than the playoff game at the same Invesco Field last January, it is fair to wonder if LeBeau’s defense could be due for a downgrade this fall.

Spread-wise, Tomlin's Pittsburgh has been taking on home/road tendencies since early in the 2010 campaign, as the Steelers have proved tough as expected at Heinz Field, standing 11-5 vs. the number their last sixteen at home but the exact opposite (5-11) their last sixteen on the road. Also note that the Steelers’ curious “over” trend at Heinz that endured for almost a decade began to finally reverse itself last fall, as Pittsburgh was “under” 6-2 at home a year ago.

Summary...Teams coming off 12-4 seasons are usually granted a wide berth, and it would be a surprise if the Steelers aren’t back in the playoff hunt as usual this fall. But there look to be several red flags at Heinz Field, not the least of which being Ben Roethlisberger’s health, as he’s already suffered an ankle injury in training camp after a series of hurts a year ago. And consider some of the other hard-to-ignore issues. The status of top skill-position weapons RB Rashard Mendenhall (knee injury) and WR Mike Wallace (bitter contract holdout) up in the air. A new offensive coordinator. A defense adjusting to the departure of several longtime contributors. A difficult division (AFC North) and a tricky slate featuring the NFC East in inter-conference play.

Add it up, and a Pittsburgh regression looks not only possible, but probable, this fall.


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