PITTSBURGH - The NFL preseason should never be used as a determination for how a certain team is going to fare during the regular season.
In 2004, the Steelers lost more games (two) in the four-game exhibition schedule than they did the entire 16-game regular season.
But trends may be noticed, and one that was apparent this preseason that may carry over to the real season is that the Steelers are going to be unpredictable.
Not with their play calling, but in how well they'll perform week to week.
The Steelers wrapped up a 3-1 up-and-down exhibition season that could be compared to a ride on Phantom's Revenge at nearby Kennywood with a 19-16 win over the Carolina Panthers at Heinz Field.
In an opening 16-10 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, the offensive line looked good, but the first-team defense didn't. In the second game, a 24-21 loss to the Buffalo Bills, the offensive line didn't perform as well, and the defense looked even worse. In a 12-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings, the defense played well, but the offense as a whole took a step back.
The Steelers' first-team offense started off in a bad way against the Panthers. A high snap by newly-anointed starting center Justin Hartwig over the head of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on the team's first series resulted in a 21-yard loss on third down.
That was not the way coach Mike Tomlin wanted his first-team offense to close out the preseason and get ready for Sunday's opener against Houston.
The offense bounced back on its second series with Willie Parker breaking a 26-yard run and fullback Carey Davis following a block from right tackle Willie Colon into the end zone. And after Bryant McFadden intercepted a horrible Matt Moore pass on the Panthers' next possession, the first-team units were finished for the preseason.
The Steelers have the personnel at the offensive skill positions to match just about any team in the NFL, as long as top draft pick Rashard Mendenhall holds on to the ball - he fumbled for the third time in two games against the Panthers.
With Parker, Mendenhall, Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, emerging star Santonio Holmes and tight end Heath Miller, the Steelers could be explosive at times. But their offensive line is considered average at best, and if those five don't perform up to standards, they'll keep the Steelers from becoming a consistently great team on offense this year.
On defense, six of the 11 ticketed starters will be at least 30 by the end of September. The Steelers need a healthy Troy Polamalu, who saw his first action of the season in the Carolina game, in their secondary all year. The cornerbacks are not All-Pro caliber and will be one reason the defense will have trouble getting off the field on third downs this year.
Because of the aforementioned, the Steelers will probably be involved in many close games, so a clutch kicker like Jeff Reed, who booted four more field goals against Carolina, including the game-winner, will come in handy.
It should be an entertaining season. A few breaks either way could determine whether they finish anywhere from 8-8 to 10-6.
That was the feeling by many before training camp began and was only reinforced in the preseason.
Buck Frank is sports editor of the Altoona Mirror. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.