Don't count out the Steelers

Why considering Pittsburgh the third-best AFC North team could be a mistake

Updated: August 31, 2013, 1:12 PM ET
By Chris Sprow | ESPN Insider

Ben RoethlisbergerAP Photo/Keith SrakocicA healthy Ben Roethlisberger will lead to improvement for Pittsburgh's offense.

Since the end of the 2003 season, only two NFL teams have been immune to a season that seems to demand a rethinking of philosophy, an obvious coaching change or a dramatic personnel overhaul.

The close of 2013 will mark a decade in which it's really only the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers that have not once had to hit reset. The Patriots rank first in regular-season wins since 2004, and Pittsburgh is third. (Indy is just ahead of the Steelers, but the Colts held down the reset button pretty firmly after 2011.) And neither Pittsburgh nor New England has experienced a season below .500 in that time.

In a QB-driven league, it would seem easy to point to the reason. Tom Brady has held down the fort in New England, save for one season of The Matt Cassel Experience, and 2004 marked the arrival of Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh.

But most Steelers fans know better. They know that Big Ben's arrival also happened to coincide with Dick LeBeau's arrival as defensive coordinator. And with LeBeau's schemes in place, even Bill Cowher's departure didn't come close to meriting a reset. Mike Tomlin's style seemed familiar, and Pittsburgh won the division in four of the five seasons after Cowher left.

But 2013 seems to be causing more concern for several reasons: the Steelers fell to 8-8 last year; the defense is another year older; Big Ben has been battered for years behind a consistently inconsistent offensive line; a very good wide receiver (Mike Wallace) skipped town; a needed addition at running back appears to be at least delayed with Le'Veon Bell's injury; and, perhaps of most concern, any personnel expert could tell you the Steelers are, at least on paper, the third-most talented team in the division behind Cincinnati and Baltimore.

Is this it, that year when Pittsburgh's proud immunity against a stinker finally wears out?

The bet here is no, for several reasons. But it starts with LeBeau.