Things haven’t gone to plan for either of the Cincinnati Bengals or Pittsburgh Steelers this season. After losing to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, the Steelers stand at 7-7 entering the final two weeks of the NFL Regular Season.
The Bengals aren’t much better off with a record of 8-6 facing a weekend face-off against the Steelers that could potentially knock them out of the playoffs. Both teams have their destiny in their hands, but both teams should have much better records and will feel like they should already be assured of their playoff spots ahead of the Baltimore Ravens.
Even though both teams are preparing to fight each other for their spot in the post-season, the Steelers are playing for much more than the Bengals this week. The Bengals have one of the youngest rosters in the league, but even more importantly, each of their key players are all young enough to build the franchise around into the future. The Steelers are in the opposite situation. In fact, this season may be the last in Pittsburgh for many of their most important players.
Ben Roethlisberger is still just 30 years of age, which is relatively young if he is to continue his career behind an improved offensive line. Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace and Heath Miller, also known as the key offensive playmakers, also still have plenty of quality years left, Miller is the oldest at 30 while the receivers are all significantly younger. GM Kevin Colbert’s recent concentration on the offensive line has the team set up in the trenches for a long time also.
However, when you flip to Dick LeBeau‘s defense a huge amount of turnover is set to be endured. Two former defensive players of the year could be gone before next season even begins. James Harrison‘s level of play has dropped off as he has moved further into his thirties. Combine that with the rather large salary he is due next season and it’s odds on that he is cut in the off-season.
Harrison is 34 years of age and while the other former defensive player of the year is only 31, he has many reasons not to return also. Troy Polamalu was signed to a new contract prior to last season, but since then he has rarely been fully healthy. The Steelers rely on Polamalu a lot on defense, but his inability to stay healthy makes him unreliable. It’s worth noting also that the Steelers didn’t miss him as much as they have in the past when he was out this year.
Four more key starters, including Polamalu’s safety partner, could all lead the exodus. Brett Kesiel, 34, Casey Hampton, 35, Larry Foote, 32, and Ryan Clark, 33, are all deep into the twilight of their respective careers. Of the four Clark has been the most consistent this season, while Foote, Keisel and Hampton have all struggled with consistency, the polar opposite of what they promised week-to-week throughout their careers.
Of the Steelers’ 30+ club on defense, only Ike Taylor could really be considered a key factor moving forward. Taylor played like an all-pro for much of the season before suffering a hairline fracture. At 32 years of age, he could still play at a high level for two or three more years.
The Steelers have been grooming replacements for many of those players. Jason Worilds has been one of the team’s best performers this year when filling in at outside linebacker for LaMarr Woodley and Harrison. Stevenson Sylvester and Sean Spence, who spent this season on IR, will likely compete for Foote’s spot on the interior. Cameron Heyward was drafted to develop behind Keisel, while Steve McLendon is lying in wait for his chance behind Hampton. The Steelers don’t have any real options at safety, but youngster Robert Golden has held a roster spot for much of the season.
What will really hurt the Steelers however, is the recent poor displays of LaMarr Woodley and Evander Hood. Hood and Woodley will be elevated to leading players on the defense when the aforementioned leaders move on.
That leaves the Steelers with the future on Dick LeBeau. LeBeau is ageless, but he has to retire at some point. Linebacker coach Keith Butler is expected to take his position, but whether he sticks with the same scheme is unclear. You would expect Butler to stay in the same scheme considering how long he has spent coaching in it, but it takes time to insert players successfully into it and could cost the Steelers’ opportunities with Roethlisberger down the line.
No matter what happens in the future, this weekend’s game means so much more to the Steelers than it does the Bengals. That could be the difference on the day. The difference between a victory and a loss could determine when the next era of the Steelers’ franchise begins.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf