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Shutdown Countdown: Pittsburgh Steelers ready to build off strong finish

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(Yahoo Sports)

(Yahoo Sports)

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order or our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.

Seeing the Pittsburgh Steelers wallowing at the bottom of the NFL's pool, at 2-6 halfway through their 2013 season, was stunning.

That doesn't happen to the Steelers. Pathetic performances in losses to woebegone teams like the Raiders and Vikings typically don't happen to them either. Neither does giving up 55 points in a game like Pittsburgh did at New England. It was the most points allowed in franchise history.

Then, in the second half, the Steelers showed up. They went 6-2. One of the losses was a 22-20 Thanksgiving loss at Baltimore, and Pittsburgh failed on a two-point conversion with 1:06 left. There was a 34-28 loss to Miami the next week, in which the Steelers led with less than three minutes remaining. They were very close to running the table in the second half.

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Ben Roethlisberger (AP)

Ben Roethlisberger (AP)

What was the difference in the second half? The defense, unable to make anything happen early in the season, started getting turnovers in bunches. Ben Roethlisberger had a fine second half (and, as the narrative goes in some circles, got more comfortable with much-maligned offensive coordinator Todd Haley). Running back Le'Veon Bell, hurt early in the season, came on late, gaining more than 300 yards in each of the season's last two months after getting 208 in the first two months combined. That gave the offense some balance.

It all added up to a prosperous second half, although it was too late for the Steelers to make the playoffs. There's no reason to believe the strong finish won't carry over. As long as the Steelers can adequately replace receiver Emmanuel Sanders and some veterans who were let go on defense because they were aging, the schedule looks advantageous.

The Steelers should believe that they'll be back in the playoffs this season.

2013 review in less than 25 words: Pittsburgh's 0-4 start dug a hole, but the team was somehow back in the playoff mix by the end, and finished 8-8.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: If you trust that the Steelers cut loose a few veterans at the right time, which they normally do, then the roster should be better. Pittsburgh moved on from safety Ryan Clark, defensive lineman Ziggy Hood and linebackers Larry Foote and LaMarr Woodley. Hood was a wasted first-round pick, but the other three were fine Steelers who seem to be past their prime, and the Steelers have replacements.

Adding running back LeGarrette Blount, receiver Lance Moore and safety Mike Mitchell helps, although they probably overpaid Mitchell a bit. The draft class is very intriguing. The Steelers look better on paper.

Best offseason acquisition: I can understand why some folks weren't so high on Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier because at times he seems to be in such a hurry to get to the ball that he misses the play. But give me Shazier's freakish athleticism and production any day. He was a very good linebacker for the Buckeyes, and his 4.38 40-yard dash time is startling for a linebacker. He's exactly what NFL teams need at that position in today's game, a player who can blow up a running back but also stay on the field in passing situations and run with just about anyone. He'll step right in next to Lawrence Timmons on and should be a difference maker right away. If Shazier pays off, the Steelers' linebackers might be unbelievable.

Achilles heel: While the offensive line is a fine pick, as it seems to be every year with the Steelers, the line wasn't all that bad last season. The position that is becoming a bit of a concern is cornerback. Just about everyone's mock draft had them taking a cornerback in the first round, for good reason. But Pittsburgh took Shazier in the first round, and didn't take a corner until the fifth round. Ike Taylor is 34 and coming off a not-so-great season. Cortez Allen and William Gay are solid, but if Taylor falls off this season, the perimeter of the defense might become a weakness.

Position in flux: There's some uncertainty at the receiver spots other than the one occupied by Antonio Brown, who is coming off a magnificent season. A lot seems to be expected of Markus Wheaton, and last year's third-round pick might be very good, but he has just six career catches. Moore was very good for the Saints for many years, but he's 30 now and had a big dip in production last year. Martavis Bryant is a tall, intriguing receiver, but the Steelers probably don't want to ask for too much out of a fourth-round pick. Pittsburgh has candidates to take some pressure off Brown, but there are still some unanswered questions heading into the preseason.

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Jason Worilds (93) celebrates a sack (Getty Images)

Jason Worilds (93) celebrates a sack (Getty Images)

Ready to break out: Outside linebacker Jason Worilds seemed like a surprising player to get the transition tag this offseason, but it wasn't so surprising if you noticed how he finished the year. Worilds had been a great sub for three years, always showing some talent when he'd get a shot, and then in his fourth year he took off.

In the last eight games he played last season, Worilds had 44 tackles and seven sacks. He was a major reason the Steelers surged in the second half. The Steelers weren't going to let him go, and this season he'll become a big-time player.

Stat fact: Ben Roethlisberger played all 16 games last season for the first time since 2008, and only the second time in his career. The Steelers gave up just seven sacks in their final seven games, a combination of the line playing well and Roethlisberger getting rid of the ball more quickly than usual. Roethlisberger is 32 and has taken a ton of hits, so being relatively clean in 2013 was a positive development.

Schedule degree of difficulty: The biggest reason to like the Steelers this season might be their schedule. Most of the tougher games are at home, with the easier ones on the road. The non-division home games are Tampa Bay, Houston, Indianapolis, New Orleans and Kansas City. The road games are Carolina, Jacksonville, N.Y. Jets, Tennessee and Atlanta. The Steelers play four non-division 2013 playoff teams, and three come to Pittsburgh. If the Steelers play well at home, as usual, and take care of some weaker teams on the road, they should be just fine this season.

Burning question

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: I think the Steelers are not quite a Super Bowl contender, but they're clearly a contender to win the AFC North. If Bell and Blount can boost the run game the Steelers' offense will be pretty good, and the linebackers should lead a tough defense. Pittsburgh played well late last season, and that might be a better indicator of where the team is headed in 2014 than last year's bad start.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: If the aging secondary falters, there might be some problems on defense. There aren't many proven weapons at receiver other than Brown, and for all the optimism about Bell he averaged just 3.5 yards last season. Although Pittsburgh finished well last season, it also did play 2-6 ball in the first half, so that has to be part of the worst-case scenario in 2014.

The crystal ball says: The Steelers will be good this season, and the schedule doesn't hurt. The Bengals are a little bit better, talent-wise, but Cincinnati has a brutal first-place schedule. The difference in schedules should allow the Steelers to sneak past the Bengals and win the division.

Previous previews:
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. Oakland Raiders
30. Washington Redskins
29. Cleveland Browns
28. Minnesota Vikings
27. Buffalo Bills
26. Tennessee Titans
25. Houston Texans
24. Dallas Cowboys
23. New York Jets
22. Atlanta Falcons
21. New York Giants
20. Miami Dolphins
19. Kansas City Chiefs
18. Baltimore Ravens
17. Detroit Lions
16. San Diego Chargers
15. Arizona Cardinals
14. St. Louis Rams
13. Carolina Panthers
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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