Steelers vs. Seahawks: Five Players to Watch in Pittsburgh's 2011 Home Opener against Seattle

Oh boy, that game against the Ravens was tough to watch. The Steelers got manhandled both on offense and defense, putting up little resistance on their way to a 7-35 thrashing via the hands of their hated rivals from Baltimore. Much has been said about this game already, so I'll refrain from a more detailed analysis. But Sunday could come with some consolation, when the Steelers await the Seattle Seahawks in their 2011 home opener at Heinz Field. After Seattle became the first team in NFL history to win a playoff game despite a losing record last year, many fans out west were excited about the upcoming season.

Of course, the Seahawks made some major roster moves during the offseason that somewhat tempered this excitement. Gone is quarterback Mattt Hasselbeck, replaced by perpetual Minnesota Vikings backup Tavaris Jackson. Gone is linebacker Lofa Tatufu, a staple in the center of the Seahawks' defense. Instead, fans were introduced to the prolific (yet once again injured) receiver Sidney Rice and pro bowl tight end Zach Miller, hoping that the two will help Jackson improve his suspect passing game.

'Five Players to Watch' analyses a handful of Steelers who need to contribute for their team to succeed each week. That much was proven last week, when the likes of Doug Legursky, Jonathan Scott, Bryant McFadden, and James Harrison lost their respective match ups by alarming margins and as a result had a hand in costing their team a victory. For this week, the premise remains the same. If these 'Five Players to Watch' can win the match ups against their Seahawks counterparts on Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers should come away with a comfortable victory. If they can't, we might be in deep trouble.

5. Antonio Brown, Wide Receiver / Kick Returner, #84, 2nd Year

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Antonio Brown remains a head-scratcher to me. The star of the 2011 Steelers training camp and preseason, Brown began last week's game ahead of fellow second year receiver Emmanuel Sanders as the third wide receiver and was poised to have a big game, especially after Ravens rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith went down with an injury. But Brown, who had been on the same page with his quarterbacks throughout the preseason, suddenly looked lost and more than once missed hot routes on his way to catching only two passes, despite being targeted a whopping nine times.

For now, I am willing to chalk Brown's struggles up to some jitters that the young receiver might have experienced after so much hype during the past month. He did excel in kickoff returns, and averaging 34.4 yards per return while consistently bringing the ball past the 20 yard line despite starting deep in his own end zone. His return ability could be huge against the Seahawks, who might have the most talked-about special teams unit of week one - but not for the right reasons. When playing the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, Seattle had just cut the deficit down to two points with four minutes to go, only to watch former Dolphin Ted Ginn Jr. return not one, but two kicks (one kickoff, one punt) to the house on his way to securing San Francisco's 33-17 victory. Ginn has proven to be a prolific return man throughout his career, but the injury-depleted Seahawks return teams showed holes that Brown might be able to exploit. If he can, look out Seattle.


4. Troy Polamalu, Strong Safety, #43, 92th Career Start

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via multimedia.detnews.com

Less than a week ago, Steeler Nation rejoiced over the front office's decision to resign the 2010 defensive player of the Year, Troy Polamalu. The strong safety, who has won multiple regular season and playoff games for Pittsburgh, is a major component of the Steelers defensive schemes and his (healthy) presence was thought to be key to a successful 2011 season. But the Ravens and Joe Flacco planned and executed a game plan that effectively rendered Polamalu ineffective, causing him to pull the same disappearing act as so many of his teammates.

#43 did not completely disappear though, although it might have been better had he done so. Instead, his name was called during unusual situations for the normally well-composed safety, including a penalty for a horse collar tackle against running back Ray Rice and being in the middle of a skirmish with multiple Ravens players. But most disturbing might have been a moment during the third quarter where he got flat-out beat by Baltimore's young tight end Ed Dickson. Have the countless injuries finally caught up with the ultra-talented Polamalu? While doubtful at this point, Sunday's game against Seattle may give us a better idea. Polamalu will likely be asked numerous times to cover Zach Miller, the pro bowl tight end that made a living in Oakland for years by being the safety valve for a mediocre quarterback. Miller caught only two passes against the 49ers as he is still getting used to a new offense and quarterback, but I expect him to get plenty of looks against a defense led by Polamalu that looked vulnerable when facing tight ends last week.


3. Ben Roethlisberger, Quarterback, #7, 100th Career Start

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This was going to be the year. After being underrated throughout his career, this was supposed to be the time Ben Roethlisberger officially established himself among the best quarterbacks in the game. After tumultuous offseasons in 2009 and 2010, he had finally gotten his life back on track, got married, and came back into the locker room as a true leader. As a result, he was voted one of four Steelers captains by his players and displayed calm confidence throughout the preseason, posting a ridiculous 146.6 QB rating in the three games he played. Then came the game against Baltimore.

Though definitely not helped by his offensive line, Roethlisberger had an horrific game in which he was directly responsible for 5 turnovers (3 interceptions, 2 fumbles) and could lead an offense loaded with talent to only seven points. Quarterbacks have bad games, but Sunday's debacle ranks among Roethlisberger's worst performances in a black and gold jersey. Yet as we all know, this game marks not the end but the beginning of a long season. 'Big Ben' has shown his ability to bounce back from bad games before, and will need to do so again if he wants to lead Pittsburgh back on the path to victory. With Seattle comes a foe familiar from his first Super Bowl victory in February 2006, when he played a bad game yet made just enough plays to bring the Lombardi trophy back to the 'Burgh. Now he faces a young but talented secondary, lead by second year safety Earl Thomas who had a convincing rookie year with five interceptions. The Steelers are now Roethlisberger's team and with this much receiving and running talent around him, he will be expected to play much better than he did in Week 1 in order to get back on track and have a career season.


2. Aaron Smith, Left Defensive End, #91, 150th Career Start

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Remember last year, when Aaron Smith tore his left triceps in late October against Miami? Many fans on this site and others worried immediately that the talented but inexperienced Ziggy Hood might not adequately fill the giant shoes of the decade's best 3-4 defensive end. But Hood convinced the doubters with confidence and ability, consistently stopping the run while rushing the quarterback with impressive resiliency. Now, the 13th year veteran is back in his starting position on the left of the defensive line, but Steeler fans are nervous once again.

The reason is simple: despite multiple assurances to the contrary by both players and coaches, Smith hasn't been himself since recovering from his triceps injury. Perhaps most telling was a play in the first quarter when he got blown up at the line of scrimmage by Ravens right guard Marshal Yanda, allowing Ray Rice to run right through the hole for an easy one yard touchdown. Not only was Smith squarely beaten, he was put on his behind in a fashion that Pittsburgh fans are not used to seeing. Throughout the game, he not only failed to command double teams but was consistently pushed back at the point of attack, becoming a major reason for the ineffectiveness of the Steelers' pass rush and Baltimore's' alarming 5.0 yards per carry in the running game. Unlike years past Smith has a couple of talented and promising players behind him in Hood and rookie Cameron Heyward, both hungry for a chance to prove themselves as stars in the Steelers defense. Smith is biding his time; if he fails to impress while playing against a worse offensive line for Seattle, we might have seen the last of #91 as a starter in Pittsburgh.


1. Marcus Gilbert, Right Tackle, #77, 1st Career Start

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As I am sure all of you know by now, Sunday's game added insult to injury when starting right tackle Willie Colon went down with a torn triceps and was put on IR on Tuesday, ending his 2011 season. In his weekly press conference, Coach Tomlin quickly shot down rumors about the possible return of Flozell Adams or Max Starks, both former Steelers who got cut this year but have started at the position for Pittsburgh with considerable success. Instead, Tomlin put all his trust in a certain rookie from Florida, assuring media and fans that "he's a talented guy" who impressed the coaches during training camp and preseason.

If that last part sounds familiar to you, it should. Though resulting from a different situation, Tomlin's words echo those of 2010 when he surprisingly elected to start his first round draft pick Maurkice Pouncey at center for the first regular season game. But this time we are talking about Marcus Gilbert, the second round rookie who was Pouncey's teammate in Florida and is expected to be the Steelers' left tackle of the future. Gilbert had a slow start into camp, reporting to Latrobe not in football shape and promptly getting injured as a result. But he improved as camp went on, and turned in some nice performances in the last two preseason games.

Before the Ravens game, Tomlin officially named Gilbert the team's third tackle, making him one of seven active linemen in his first official game as a Steeler. As the Pouncey example proves, throwing a rookie into the cold water can be successful, particularly when that rookie is expected to be the future at his position anyways. Starting at right tackle against a mediocre defense gives Gilbert the opportunity to learn on the fly, getting him familiar with the offense and his teammates while at the same time not risking Roethlisberger's blind side. Now is his chance to grab a starting position on the offensive line and not let go, and it will be intriguing to see how the young tackle responds.

 

BONUS: Bill Leavy, Referee, In the League since 1995

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I just had to go there. Steelers fans, prepare yourself for three hours full of references to Super Bowl XL and how the Seahawks felt they were cheated out of a Lombardy Trophy. The reason? Bill Leavy is coming to town. The referee has been in the league for over a decade, but will forever be remembered for that one fateful game in February 2006 when the Steelers became the first #6 seed in NFL history to win the Super Bowl.

 

Six and a half years after the game in Detroit, Seahawks fans are still livid about some of the calls Leavy made, despite a later apology. We have had plenty of rough 'discussions' right here on BTSC as well as on Field Gulls over these calls, and I won't incite further verbal headbutting by bringing up the specific calls again. But Seahawks fans and media alike are riled up over Leavy's return to a match between the two teams, and it won't go unnoticed during the broadcast. Also interesting will be how Leavy himself reacts: who will get the benefit of the doubt in 50/50 situations? Will he whistle an entirely fair game (almost impossible for any human being), or favor one of the teams again, perhaps this time by overcompensating for his 'mistakes'? An interesting storyline throughout the game, for sure.

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If Marcus Gilbert, Aaron Smith, Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, and Antonio Brown turn in solid games, the Steelers should handle the Seahawks with relative ease. But a few other players are important to Pittsburgh's success as well. Like his counterpart Smith, Brett Keisel couldn't hold his own against the Ravens and was blown off the line with alarming regularity. The linebackers were suspect against the run, and couldn't generate even the hint of a pass rush. Maurkice Pouncey and Doug Legursky showed that they haven't played together much, and need to communicate better. Who are your Players to Watch for the Steelers home opener against the Seahawks?

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