5 Hidden Gems on the Steelers 2013 Offense
Hidden gems are always one of the more exciting pieces for NFL writers to build a story around. Most of the time, these guys come with interesting back-stories and humble beginnings to reach the mountaintop.
The Steelers have been particularly good in this category in the past. Players like Antonio Brown and Willie Parker were all relative unknowns when they came to Pittsburgh and all made significant strides in their time in Pittsburgh.
But in 2013 for a middle-of-the-road team like the Steelers, finding these types of players is very important if they want to get back to the playoffs. Let's check out five guys who fit this bill for the Steelers' offense this season.
LaRod Stephens-Howling, RB/KR
LaRod Stephens-Howling isn't really an unknown player, but his signing by the Steelers flew well under the radar.
After finishing his career at Pitt, the Arizona Cardinals made Stephens-Howling a seventh round selection where he flourished on special teams. Over the last two seasons, however, the back became a much bigger part of the Cardinals' offense, scoring four rushing touchdowns in 2012.
The Steelers may lack frontline talent in the backfield, but it is a crowded group. Le'Veon Bell, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman will fight for the bulk of the carries, which could leave Stephens-Howling on the outside looking in.
And that might be right where the Steelers want him.
Pittsburgh has ranked 17th, 9th, 16th, 30th, 23rd, 21st and 30th in special teams since 2006 according to Football Outsiders. In that time, they've returned just two kicks and two punts for touchdowns with the last two in each category coming from Antonio Brown.
In Stephens-Howling's first two seasons with the Cardinals, he was one of the better returnmen in the game. In 2010, he led the league in kick return yards and scored three touchdowns in his freshman and sophomore campaigns. His numbers dropped in 2011, however, as he became more involved in the team's running game.
With Chris Rainey out of the picture, Stephens-Howling could be just the guy to revive a fledgling Steelers' return game. Look for him to make an impact in 2013. He's in the offensive category because of how he can impact the field position and scoring of a game.
Matt Spaeth, TE
Tight end Matt Spaeth won't have the numbers that line up with what many consider to be a "hidden gem", but he brings interesting value to this team.
With Heath Miller still on the mend, all signs point to the Steelers going with second-year David Paulson to fill in his shoes. But Pittsburgh has made it clear they'd like to see a return in the run game, an area that the 245-pound Paulson hasn't succeeded.
At 6'7", 270-pound Spaeth has never filled the stat-sheet, but has excelled as a blocker on the edge.
For a team trying to rebuild their running game, Spaeth is a perfect fit. Even after Heath Miller returns to the lineup, look for Spaeth to get reps in running and double-tight formations. If the ground game improves, be sure to look for Spaeth as a quiet hero.
Plaxico Burress, WR
Let's make one thing clear, this isn't the Plaxico Burress of five years ago. He's not the guaranteed 1,000 yard, 10 TD guy he was with the New York Giants, but that doesn't mean he can't contribute on this team.
Burress' biggest impact might be felt in the early part of the season, where it's unclear if Heath Miller will be ready to go. Miller was Ben Roethlisberger's favorite target inside the red zone last season and they'll miss his size so deep in enemy territory.
That's where Burress fits in.
Burress is tall and long and can still get off the ground. He's always been adept at getting the ball at its' highest point and coming down with it. Two years ago for the Jets, Burress hauled in eight scores in 13 starts. In just three games last year for the Steelers, he found the endzone once.
Don't expect Plax to have any kind of rebirth here in the Steel City, but with his size and the ability he has left, he can still impact the game in the red zone. A place where Pittsburgh has struggled over the last few seasons.
Kelvin Beachum, OL
Steelers' fans became pretty familiar with Beachum in 2012 as a slew of injuries across the offensive line force the rookie to make five starts at right tackle. And even with both Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams returning to action at the tackles this season, Beachum shouldn't have a problem finding a spot on the field.
Pittsburgh lost both Max Starks and Doug Legursky to free agency leaving holes at both the interior and edge spots on the line. The team signed former Jaguar Guy Whimper as a reserve tackle, but he led the league in sacks allowed in 2011 and gave up four in six starts last season.
Beachum will start the season working as an interior lineman, backing up Ramon Foster and David DeCastro at the guards and possibly even Maurkice Pouncey at center. But given his familiarity with the tackle position, it's not a stretch to think he'll see time there as well.
The Steelers offensive line has a terrible history with injuries meaning they need solid backups and rotational guys. Beachum should be a big contributor at multiple positions in 2013.
Will Johnson, FB
In an era where the fullback is all but on life support, the Steelers may have found the version of the position that can survive.
Former West Virginia tight end Will Johnson became the team's starting fullback in 2012 as a rookie and took over the spot. He did a nice job of blocking for the teams backs and was very good catching the ball out of the backfield.
It's hard to get excited over a fullback and, like most of the others on this list, he'll never fill out the stat sheet. But he can bring an impact to the game for Pittsburgh, whether it be blocking or catching out of the backfield.
It's not out of the question to think Johnson could haul in 20-25 passes this season with a year of fullback under his belt. Any team would take that kind of production.