The Pittsburgh Steelers are doing something this offseason that feels long overdue. The running game is stronger. The defense is younger. Most importantly, the belief that their no-nonsense, blue-collar image has remained intact over the past few years seemingly has vanished. Instead of relying on a long-standing reputation, the Steelers appear serious about regaining their nastiness.
It's a welcome sight for a team that has slipped into mediocrity over the past couple of seasons. There are many reasons the Steelers haven't made the playoffs since 2011, but the biggest is their personality: They've lost that physical edge that always made them so scary. A team that was long known for its ability to beat teams up both with a relentless running attack and a fierce defense had become too reliant on the arm of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It also had succumbed to injuries and age, as inconsistency became all too common in the Steel City.
The good news here is Pittsburgh's offseason revealed that the front office isn't blind to what has been happening. The same team that used a second-round pick on bruising running back Le'Veon Bell last year signed another banger, LeGarrette Blount, in free agency. Former Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Munchak was hired to coach the offensive line, an area where he ranks among the best in the business. The defense also has had an infusion of youth, with this year's draft bringing inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt.
All these moves are critical because they speak to a sense of urgency. The Steelers were slipping into a rut that elite franchises can fall victim to if they're not careful. The more they contended for championships in recent years, the more they lost sight of who they were fundamentally. This is a team that always has been at its best with the same strategy -- dominant run game and attacking defense -- a philosophy that just won a Super Bowl for the Seattle Seahawks. Five-receiver sets and 400-yard passing days never made the Steelers as dangerous as they were when they bullied opponents on a weekly basis.
All you have to know about the Steelers' recent struggles is the weakened state of their running game. They haven't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Rashard Mendenhall topped that mark in 2010. Last year, they averaged 86.4 rushing yards per game, tied with the Cleveland Browns for 27th in the NFL. The 6-foot-1, 244-pound Bell flashed some potential -- running for 860 yards and eight touchdowns after missing the first three games of his rookie season -- but we're talking about a team that went 22 games without a player gaining 100 yards on the ground (Bell broke the streak in Week 16).
Blount's arrival gives Pittsburgh a potent 1-2 punch of heavyweight ball carriers. At 6-foot and 250 pounds, he boosted the New England Patriots running game late last season. Used as a role player most of the year, Blount had a 189-yard performance in a season-ending win over Buffalo and a 166-yard, four-touchdown effort in a playoff win over Indianapolis. Even if he's not the second coming of Earl Campbell, his presence will make life easier for offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who was hired two years ago to bring a smashmouth style back to the offense.
The major key, of course, is keeping Pittsburgh's offensive line intact. Munchak's expertise will be huge, but so will keeping five starters healthy for an entire season. The Steelers have started more than 30 different offensive line combinations over the past four years, and Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey blew out his right knee in last season's first game. If that unit stays healthy, however, everything changes for the better, including a defense that finally hit its own wall in 2013.
It had been amazing to watch defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau produce consistently dominant units, but last season's squad was uncharacteristically lousy against the run -- No. 21 in the league -- and prone to giving up big pass plays. Pittsburgh also ranked 13th in total defense and 14th in points allowed. Keep in mind, the Steelers hadn't finished outside the top 10 in total defense since 1999. They'd been the league's best unit five times since LeBeau returned as coordinator in 2004 (he held the same title with the team from 1995-96).
Some of that drop-off was the simple result of time catching up with this franchise. Last offseason, the team said farewell to aging stars James Harrison and Casey Hampton. This year, the departures of more big names -- specifically, LaMarr Woodley, Brett Keisel, Larry Foote and Ryan Clark -- left more questions about who would step up and provide leadership. As much as this team has ridden Roethlisberger on offense in recent years, the reliability of that defense has been vital to keeping the Steelers relevant.
Pittsburgh's hopes for improvement look far better today than at this stage last offseason. Shazier has been so impressive that he has already slid into a starting job, something that doesn't happen very often for rookies in the Steelers' defense. Last year's top pick, outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, could be ready to be the team's next dominant pass-rusher. Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons already is one of the most underrated defenders in the game. Throw in defensive end Cameron Heyward (who had a breakout season in 2013) and newly signed free-agent safety Mike Mitchell (who did the same thing with the Carolina Panthers last year), and there are plenty of positives beyond 33-year-old star safety Troy Polamalu.
The Steelers today don't look like a team that was about to drift into an unsettling state in which 8-8 seasons became the norm. They actually can think about pushing back into the upper echelon of the AFC. It's not as if this is a conference flush with talented teams at the moment. Beyond the Broncos and Patriots, there aren't any teams that can be defined as elite.
The Steelers shouldn't be content to be in the middle of the pack as they reshape their roster. Their history is too strong, their standards too insanely high. They've already taken the first steps of moving in the right direction by making a flurry of smart personnel moves this offseason. The next step is staying true to their apparent plan, one that hinges on them finally getting back to who they really should be.