By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, 7:12 p.m.
With apologies to Dennis Green, it's possible these 2013 Steelers aren't who we thought they were.
Or even who they thought they were.
Yeah, there's been a ton of debate and dissection over how they've been able to dig out from an 0-4 hole to play an honest-to-Kosar-and-Sipe important game in Cleveland on this particular Sunday. But most of that discussion has centered on strategy and execution. They're going no-huddle more often. They're deploying six defensive backs. They're just making the plays, doing what they're supposed to do. That sort of thing.
What about personnel?
Couldn't it be the case — maybe the main case — that the players this management and coaching staff thought were their best coming out of Latrobe really weren't?
I'd say so when looking at the upgrades made at a quarter of the roster's 24 starting spots …
Velasco > Pouncey
It's been heresy to knock Maurkice Pouncey since the first drill of his first camp, but he was graded by Pro Football Focus as no higher than the NFL's 12th-best center in 2012, and, more to the point, he's been brittle.
Whether he can do the job isn't the issue. It's getting it done.
Fernando Velasco has done it. He has been solid from his first snap despite coming in cold as a free agent after Pouncey was lost for the season in the opener. Velasco provided immediate stability, he's only gotten stronger, and the Steelers are the better for it.
Beachum > Adams
Anyone who saw the Vikings' Jared Allen manhandle Mike Adams in London knows that starting Adams at a critical position like left tackle was a near-fatal mistake. And by that I mean Ben Roethlisberger is lucky to be breathing.
It was a mistake not only starting Adams but also switching sides between him and Marcus Gilbert in the spring. Both were at least OK where they were.
Kelvin Beachum hasn't made anyone forget the prime version of Max Starks — six sacks allowed in six starts — but he's improved with each week, which is to be expected for essentially learning on the job.
Cotchery > Sanders
Before the season, I'd expressed hope that another wide receiver would push 31-year-old Jerricho Cotchery off the field.
Man, talk about a dropped ball.
Cotchery hasn't just fended off rookie Markus Wheaton, but he also has surpassed Emmanuel Sanders, New England's fling last summer, as the clear No. 2 on the depth chart under Antonio Brown.
Check out this efficiency: Cotchery has caught 34 of 49 passes sent his way, a terrific 69 percent. More impressive, seven have gone for touchdowns to lead the team, and 29 catches — all but five! — have brought first downs.
Heyward > Hood
It's taken Cam Heyward three years — far too long — to deliver his expected impact at defensive end, but he has been the starter since Week 6, and that's on merit. No one has been more disruptive in the backfield.
He bumped Ziggy Hood off the field to start, but he's also outperformed Brett Keisel in every regard.
It's Heyward's time, and it's about time.
Gay > Allen
Think management isn't wondering whether letting Keenan Lewis walk to the Saints — for whom he's been quite good — was a mistake?
Cortez Allen was supposed to take over at corner for Lewis, maybe even add a takeaway dimension. But all that was taken away was his starting job, by the veteran William Gay. Gay has had wild swings, sure, but he has allowed fewer catches, yards and touchdowns than the other starting corner, Ike Taylor, in just 63 fewer snaps.
It's not ideal for the future, but it's made this team better.
Worilds > Woodley
This one, I'm guessing, will set off the most alarms, but how to avoid it?
Never mind that LaMarr Woodley is almost incessantly hurt, including the calf injury that has him listed as questionable for this game. That's maddening enough for a player not yet halfway through a six-year, $61.5 million contract.
What's most striking is what we saw last Sunday against the Detroit Lions, when Jason Worilds, taking Woodley's place at left outside linebacker, registered eight tackles, a sack and four quarterback hits. In general, Worilds did things athletically — spin moves, in particular — that we haven't seen from Woodley in more than two years.
In the middle of this week, Worilds acknowledged being more comfortable on the left side than his usual right, which raised a couple of decidedly un-comfortable follow-up questions for both.
Hey, no need to tiptoe here. Plain and simple, successful teams put their best players in the places they belong.
Let's not overthink how the Steelers suddenly are competitive again.
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