The Pittsburgh Steelers spent much of the time between their last playoff victory and now replenishing their roster in preparation for their next chance to make a push for a championship. Last season showed signs that the team was on its way out of that transitional phase after posting a division-winning 11-5 record following back to back .500 seasons.
Still, the Steelers failed to make it out of the divisional round, and have lost their last three postseason contests, dating back to Super Bowl XLV. They followed up that 2010 run with a 12-4 wildcard campaign that saw a first-round exit, and subsequently failed to return to the playoffs the following two years.
So how close might they be to righting the ship and returning to that place that they have been more than any other franchise—that is, holding up the Lombardi Trophy? One way to attempt to measure that would be to compare how this season’s lineup projects against past teams.
For these purposes, it might be helpful to cite both the 2008 and 2010 teams, which are, respectively, the teams that have claimed their most recent Super Bowl championship and their most recent Super Bowl appearance.
This one is a bit tricky due to circumstances, but the fact is that Aaron Smith was the starting defensive end on opening day during the Steelers’ last two Super Bowl-bound seasons. It was second-year player Ziggy Hood who started in the Super Bowl in 2010, but we’ll get into the details of that later.
For many, Smith is viewed as the Steelers’ prototypical defensive end, the kind of player you’d like to clone a few times to start opposite himself and for depth. There’s no disputing the immense impact that he had on the success or failure of this defense during his tenure.
Just look back at the 2007 and 2009 seasons and see how the team struggled after his injuries. The 2010 was a welcome and merciful change, even if it was somewhat short-lived. After suffering a triceps tear about a third of the way through the season, and not knowing whether or not he would be able to return, the Steelers kept him on the roster, showing just how much he meant to the team, but it was Hood getting the start with him sidelined.
It’s fair to dispute how much of an impact he had on the statistic, but the defense as a whole that season posted one of the best rushing yards allowed per game mark in the history of the league, and he was a starter for the majority of that time on the defensive line.
But they let him walk in free agency last year, and they drafted his replacement, Stephon Tuitt, in the second round, who has managed to crack the starting lineup faster than any other defensive end for the Steelers in recent memory, which is a good start.
Though he may be wearing Smith’s old number, however, it’s more than fair to say that, at this stage of his career, he is a far cry from being the player that he was at his best. But he does have the potential to be that player. It will be interesting to watch the pace of his development in year two and what kind of impact he is able to make on the defense.