Young Pittsburgh Steelers Must Be Ready
For the Pittsburgh Steelers' rookies, there is a long developmental process. You get drafted, you sit behind a veteran to learn the system, and then, maybe by the end of the season, you begin to see some playing time. However, you do not get a chance to crack the starting lineup until your second year.
That trend may change this year.
Art Rooney has sent a clear message to the Steelers coaching staff and players. If you were recently drafted, you better be ready to play sooner rather than later.
“I do think that one of the things we have to do is probably get better at developing our younger players…That’s something we have to think about and make sure we’re doing what we need to do to have guys being able to step in maybe a little earlier.”
The Steelers development of rookies has been particularly slow over the past three seasons.
Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh’s 2007 first round draft choice, did not start until this past season, his third in the league. It could be argued that Timmons was handed the job over Larry Foote, who was still playing at a high level. If he was ready earlier, the Steelers may not have paid James Farrior as much as they did in his recent contract extension.
Instead, Timmons could have stepped into his spot and played alongside a younger Foote.
After missing most of the 2008 season with an injury, Rashard Mendenhall entered the starting lineup this season and played very effectively, rushing for over 1,100 yards in 12 starts. It still took until the fourth game of the season, and a week being benched, before Mendenhall had the opportunity to carry the load.
Pittsburgh’s most recent first round pick, Ziggy Hood, played in only eight games picking up eight tackles and a sack. Despite very limited playing time, Hood displayed playmaking abilities that the Steelers expected when taking him at the end of the first round in 2009.
Being a first round selection, Hood will see an increased amount of playing time and will play a more vital role in the defense, likely being the first defensive end off the bench.
But what about the rest of the young players on the roster? Will they be afforded the same chances that the former first round selections get?
Well, if the Steelers coaches listen to Rooney, they will.
“I think number one, we have to get some of our younger players ready to go, and I think we have some young players who can step in and be contributors.
"I think we’re all comfortable that there are some guys on the team now who can step in and make a difference next year.”
So who are these young players that Rooney is talking about?
From the 2008 draft, only Mendenhall and Dennis Dixon have started at least one game. Dixon will be expected to be the primary backup to Ben Roethlisberger, but realistically, he will not be making an impact on a weekly basis. However, there are two players in the secondary who will be expected to take on larger roles this season.
Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett were two cornerbacks drafted last year. Lewis has the build to be a big, physical cornerback, capable of being a starter, and he could compete with Bryant McFadden for a starting role.
Even if he does not win the starting job, Lewis can battle it out with William Gay.
Though Gay has proven to be a capable player in the past, he struggled last season, and does not have a secure job, even as the nickel back.
Being a bit undersized, Burnett will not challenge for a starting role, but he does have the skill set to compete for a spot as the nickel or dime back as well. He will have to improve on his limited experience last season when he dropped what would have been a game sealing interception.
If Lewis and Burnett both step up, the Steelers will have a good, young secondary upon which to build. If not, they will once again have trouble stopping even the average quarterbacks in the league.
Offensively, the Steelers are set at the skill positions. This is in part because of the development of third round selection Mike Wallace. The rookie sensation at receiver had the opportunity to play early, in part, due to the lack of development of former second round selection Limas Sweed.
The speedy receiver from Mississippi had 39 receptions for an average of 19.4 yards per catch.
He also added six touchdowns, including a last second tip-toe touchdown against Green Bay. Wallace will enter the starting lineup alongside Hines Ward due to Santonio Holmes being traded to the New York Jets.
Fellow third round choice, Kraig Urbik, did not fair so well. Urbik was unable to put it together last season and spent much of the season on the sidelines in a sweat suit.
However, it is likely that he will do the same this season.
This is because he will need to compete at right guard with Trai Essex, Ramon Foster, and this year’s first round selection, Maurkice Pouncey.
Essex and Foster were each effective last season, but there is still room for an upgrade. Pouncey is likely to be a rookie starter at right guard before moving to center, which means that Urbik needs be ready to start by his third year.
Urbik has a higher upside than any other backup on the roster, aside from Pouncey.
A solid run blocker, Urbik would benefit from an increased emphasis on the run game. If he is able to beat out the others for the guard spot in the next year or two, it would mean an upgrade for the offensive line.
The final young player that the Steelers need this season is Frank Summers. Nicknamed “The Tank,” Summers was a disappointment last season. This was not much of a problem as the Steelers were deep at running back with Mendenhall, Willie Parker, and Mewelde Moore.
Pittsburgh lacks depth this season, as Parker signed with the Washington Redskins. Summers has the size to be the short yardage back that is missing from the roster, but if he does not play at running back, he can fill the role of fullback.
Summers will have some competition though. Rookie Jonathan Dwyer is the second player from the 2010 draft class who has a chance to see significant playing time this season.
A steal in the sixth round, Dwyer had first or second round talent, and could see significant action if he can win the backup or short yardage back job.
And according to Rooney, Dwyer will be given a chance, just as the other rookies will this season.
“We’ll be drafting a little higher than we have been this year and so we have to do a good job with the draft and have some guys come in who will help in the near future, not right away, but in the near future.”
Emmanual Sanders will likely be behind wide receivers Ward, Wallace, and Antwaan Randle El. He will have to compete for the fourth slot with Arnaz Battle. His biggest impact, though, will be that Sanders could be a return specialist for Pittsburgh.
The other rookie receiver, Antonio Brown, will have to shine if he wants to make the roster. His niche will most likely have to be found on special teams where he is a return ace.
Defensively, the rookies will also likely have to find their first playing action on special teams.
Linebackers coach Keith Butler all but said that outside linebackers Jason Worilds and Thaddeus Gibson will not see the field beyond special teams this season, since it typically takes at least two years to develop.
But for a team with special teams problems, rookies making impacts in this area will be key. Anything extra this season would be an added bonus.
Inside linebacker Stevenson Sylvester will be behind Farrior, Timmons, Foote, and Fox and may have trouble making the roster due to the depth, though he has a high upside for a late round selection.
Cornerback Crezdon Butler and defensive end Doug Worthington each have uphill battles to make the roster.
Whether any of the draft picks play, or not, will be determined in just a few months, and while some have a bigger hill to climb than others, they will all most certainly be given every chance to succeed.
For the young players on the Steelers, get ready, the future is almost here.
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