PITTSBURGH — As the curtain rose on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2013 season Saturday night, it quickly became apparent that any success the team might achieve this season will ride on the backs of the scores of young players donning black and gold.
And if you’ve followed the franchise for any period of time, you know that’s the exception rather than the norm in Pittsburgh.
Though the Steelers are among the best drafting teams in the NFL, and subsequently, among the best at developing those draft picks into productive members of the franchise for years to come, it’s not often that the Steelers ask their rookies or even second-year players to step into key roles.
There are exceptions, to be sure. Of course, there was Ben Roethlisberger starting 15 games as a rookie in 2004. Maurkice Pouncey was a Pro Bowler his rookie season in 2010. And certainly there have been others.
But more often than not, the Steelers’ big stars — on offense and defense — take a few seasons to bud into being those stars. Case in point: Antonio Brown, Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley, Heath Miller. Going further back in time, there was Hines Ward, who was hardly a star his first couple seasons. And the list goes on and on.
But this season’s group of budding stars will have to grow up quickly.
From the offensive line to the defense to the skill positions, the Steelers will be pressed into relying on a bunch of youngsters immediately.
For starters, only 15 guys on the preseason roster (out of 91) are 30 years of age or older, and only six are 32 or older. (That also means we’re finally going to stop hearing all the talk about Pittsburgh’s old and slow defense.)
Out of necessity, the Steelers will have to rely on those youngsters this season, especially at the skill positions.
They have no proven every-down running back, and rookie Le’Veon Bell has impressed so much during training camp that he could fill that role, even as a rookie.
And the fact the Steelers held him out of Saturday’s 18-13 loss to the New York Giants — a game in which he was supposed to get extensive work with the first unit — tells you how highly the Steelers think of the kid. They didn’t want to take the slightest of risks with him.
Then there’s receiver Markus Wheaton, who at 5-foot-11, 182 pounds, fits the mold of Brown and Emmanuel Sanders rather than the big, tall target Ben Roethlisberger has sought for years. But he has the explosive speed nobody on the Steelers’ roster has this year.
And as was evident by his catch that wasn’t Saturday night, he has natural talent and ability others in the Steelers locker room lack.
Also, with Plaxico Burress seemingly shelved for the long term, that only leaves one receiver — Jerricho Cotchery — who is 6 feet or taller. That means Justin Brown (6-3) will be pressed into action. The Steelers have no choice if they want a tall, deep threat.
At tight end, second-year player David Paulson is the most seasoned healthy Steeler, with the top three guys on the depth chart all nursing injuries.
Regardless of how quickly No. 1 tight end Heath Miller returns from a serious injury suffered last season, the Steelers will need production from the position. And who’s left to fill the void? At the moment, five tight ends, none of whom have more than two years of experience.
On defense, there’s rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones, who made a handful of nice plays Saturday and came oh so close to a quarterback sack or two. If Jason Worilds continues to make bonehead plays — like the back-to-back personal foul penalties late in the first half — Jones will leapfrog him on the depth chart even before the regular season starts.
For a defensive unit built around the linebacker corps, that’s a lot of pressure for a rookie.
Along the offensive line, a unit with an average age of 24.4 years among the starters, the Steelers will have to rely on guys like Mike Adams and David DeCastro, neither of whom have a full NFL season worth of playing experience.
In other words, ready or not, these youngsters had better be ready to jump into the fire. But sixth-year Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said that won’t happen.
“They won’t be pressed,” he said. “If they’re ready and capable to help us, we’ll utilize them. If they’re not, we won’t. That’s our philosophy this year, next year, last year, 10 years from now.”
That may be so, but the Steelers’ options are limited beyond the youngsters at many of these aforementioned positions. They’ll need the youth movement to step up if they’re to avoid a rebuilding year.