Pittsburgh Steelers: 6 Players Who Must Step Up in 2013
BY CHRIS G. (FEATURED COLUMNIST) ON MAY 14, 2013
For the Pittsburgh Steelers, championships are the standard. Last season, they came nowhere near meeting this standard as they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Entering the 2013 season, the Steelers are a team in transition. Gone are several of the veterans who helped them to years of success. Now they will need their young talent to step up and fill the void.
When speaking of the young talent, I am not referring to the players in their first or second years, but rather those who have at least two years of experience and now need to prove they belong in the league.
Without their youth stepping up and performing at a high level, the Steelers will not compete for a playoff spot this season. But they need more than just their young players to improve if they want to succeed.
Pittsburgh will also need its underperforming stars to stay on the field and earn their pay.
Here is a look at six players who must step up their performance if the Steelers want to return to the playoffs in 2013.
Much of the attention on the offensive line will be on second-year pro Mike Adams, but Marcus Gilbert will be one player to keep an eye on.
I expect Gilbert to step in for Max Starks at left tackle to protect Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side. That is a significant role for a player who has never started more than 13 games in a season.
The Steelers will be in their second season under offensive coordinator Todd Haley and in their first under offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. The key to the offense's success will not be the skill players, but rather the performance of the offensive line.
There will be a major emphasis put on keeping Roethlisberger healthy after he suffered injuries over the past two seasons that really hampered his play.
Gilbert will be in charge of blocking some of the league’s best pass-rushers while playing on the left side.
Starks has proven that he is a capable left tackle, but Gilbert has not done that quite yet. He is not an elite athlete, but he has good feet to work with and the potential to develop into a solid left tackle.
The Steelers have had success in the past with transitioning right tackles to left tackles—just look at Starks and Marvel Smith. Gilbert will now look to be the next in line to make a successful switch.
Antonio Brown has skyrocketed up the wide receiver depth chart. He started as a bit of a long shot to make the roster and now he will be Roethlisberger’s No. 1 receiver.
Brown has the challenge of replacing Mike Wallace as the team’s top option. In some ways he will be better—such as running routes and toughness—but in others he cannot match.
For instance, while Brown is fast, he cannot come close to matching Wallace’s elite deep speed that made him such a threat.
But the Steelers do not need a burner on the outside to succeed. What they need is a dependable option who can make the tough receptions and put the ball in the end zone.
This is an area in which Brown has struggled. Last season, he only had five touchdowns, and he only has seven for his career.
In fact, last season as a whole was a down year for Brown. He had fewer receptions, yards, yards per reception and first downs than he did in 2011.
Brown knows that he will have a bigger role this season and must step up his game. Not only does he have to fill the void left by Wallace, but also the one left by Heath Miller while he recovers from an ACL injury.
The Steelers had an opportunity to pick up a third-round draft pick from the New England Patriots after Emmanuel Sanders signed an offer sheet with them. Rather than take the pick, they decided to keep their receiver.
Now Sanders must demonstrate that the team made the right decision.
Sanders is going to have an increased role in 2013 as he assumes the No. 2 receiver role behind Brown. This is a role that he should fill nicely.
With the offense focusing on quicker passes, the receivers will be running shorter routes, and that is one of Sanders' strengths.
He is a terrific route-runner and has very good hands that will serve him well in Haley’s offense.
In his first season under Haley, Sanders was impressive with 44 receptions for 626 yards. He led the team with 14.2 yards per reception.
The problem is that Sanders has suffered through some injuries, which have hindered his development and production. He also has some faults in his game that have limited him over his career.
Sanders is pretty easy to knock off of the line and has trouble finding the end zone, with only five career touchdowns—including just one last season.
Like Brown, Sanders will need to prove to be a dependable option for Roethlisberger, particularly in the red zone, where he going to have to help replace the points that Wallace put on the board.
The Steelers drafted James Harrison’s long-term replacement in the first round this year when they selected Jarvis Jones. But Jones won’t be his immediate replacement.
Until Jones is ready, the Steelers will need Jason Worilds to provide the pass rush from the right side.
Last season, Worilds had five sacks in limited action. While the numbers don’t look too bad on the surface, he was unable to apply consistent pressure and also lacks in other areas of his game.
Worilds is not very strong against the run and still has room to grow dropping into coverage.
He is not going to make the same types of splash plays that Harrison has made over the years. That means fewer quarterback hits, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Harrison was a special player, and Worilds just is not at that level. He doesn’t need to be either.
The Steelers just need a good season from Worilds.
What does Worilds need to do to achieve this? He needs to get to the quarterback on a consistent basis, be competent dropping into coverage and stand his ground against the run.
Worilds is just keeping the seat warm for Jones until he is ready to enter the starting lineup, but the better he plays the longer the rookie will be on the bench, and the better the Steelers will be.
It is put up or shut up time for Ziggy Hood. He may not be a first-round bust, but he never lived up to his draft status either.
Over the course of his career, Hood has consistently started off the season slow and picked up his game over the final month of the year. That is not good enough for a defense that needs strong play from its line.
Hood’s average to below-average play was one of the reasons why the defense struggled against the run last season and why they have had a poor pass rush over the last two seasons.
The Steelers need Hood to do the dirty work on the line. He has to occupy blockers to allow room for the linebackers to make plays. That hasn’t happened nearly enough since he entered the starting lineup.
If Hood does not step up his play this year, he will be at risk to losing his starting job to Cameron Heyward.
A year and a half ago, LaMarr Woodley was the most dangerous pass-rusher in the entire league. Injuries and a few pounds later, he is one of the most overpaid and underachieving players on Pittsburgh’s roster.
Between 2008 and 2010, Woodley put up 35 sacks, and the Steelers had one of the most feared defenses in the league. Since then, he only has 13 sacks and has been invisible for long stretches of time.
No longer does Woodley have Harrison on the other side of him for offenses to focus on. Now that he is the Steelers most dangerous pass-rusher, opponents will focus their attention to his side.
Whether it is the injuries, being out of shape or a combination of both, Woodley needs to dedicate himself to getting back to being the dominant pass-rusher that he can be.
Pittsburgh’s defense is built on the foundation of being able to rush the quarterback, and over the past two seasons they have not been able to do that. Woodley has been a major part of this problem.
While Pittsburgh’s defensive corps is still in place, they will be a key to success this season. Woodley needs to be a major part of this and bring the element of sacking the quarterback back to equation. It will be the only way that the defense can regain its dominant form.