Labriola on 2013 Steelers

This year, it's going to be different. It's going to have to be, and the signs are everywhere.

Start with a roster that isn't as proven, and nowhere near as deep. The No. 3 quarterback no longer is a guy with over 50 NFL starts on his resume, for example. The offensive line doesn't contain five different tackles with starting NFL experience. Back in the days when those two things were true for the Steelers, so was this: Larry Foote was being phased out at inside linebacker. Today, Foote is one of the defense's key players, and he's no younger or faster. That same roster contained 17 players who had helped them win two Super Bowls.

That was 2010, and those Steelers won their third AFC Championship over a six-season span but lost Super Bowl XLV.

This is 2013 – the start of the third season since then – and today the Steelers have at most six offensive linemen upon whom they can count for consistent above-the-line play. Not one of their wide receivers or running backs ever has been the No. 1 guy at the position as a professional. The defense has finished No. 1 in terms of yards allowed two seasons in a row, but it needs to find some playmakers who can juice a takeaway total that has ranked 31st and then 25th in those same seasons.

There are a lot of ifs for these Steelers at the start of the 2013 NFL season. Some of them have been detailed above, and the rest have been on display at different times during this preseason. What is at issue is whether they have enough other components to overcome their deficiencies in order to be better than whatever similarly flawed bunch they may be playing on a particular weekend.

That's what the NFL has become. It is either a glorious example of the kind of parity that gives all of its teams and all of their fans cause for hope every Labor Day. Or it's a giant pool of mediocrity where luck can be the difference between coaches getting fired or victory parades through the downtown streets.

Actually, it's both, which is what makes it simultaneously compelling to watch and impossible to predict.

And so too should the 2013 Steelers be compelling to watch and impossible to predict. Compelling to watch primarily because they are one of the half-dozen or so teams with a franchise quarterback, and as such are capable of changing the course of a game quickly or stealing it at the end. Franchise quarterbacks can be like erasers, a player who can even things quickly on the scoreboard, and they give their teammates the confidence to keep fighting because there's a difference-maker on their side.

Ben Roethlisberger deserves to be included in the active player chapter of the franchise quarterback club. He is one of only three active quarterbacks with more than one championship, and being the starting quarterback on a team that has won multiple championships means coming through in a lot of critical situations against top competition. And watching the 2013 version of Roethlisberger that has been on display during training camp and the preseason indicates his play remains championship caliber.

And then there's the issue of the schedule. Or more precisely, the caliber of the teams on that schedule, and what versions of said teams will present themselves to the Steelers come game day.

The 2013 Steelers are a flawed bunch set to enter a meat-grinder where a 10-6 record for one team can be good enough to win the Super Bowl – as it was for the Ravens last year – while for another it's not even good enough to get into the playoffs – as it wasn't for the Bears.

They are a flawed bunch with a franchise quarterback. In other words, compelling to watch and impossible to predict.

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