Time to Step Up: Part One

It has been a long while since I last wrote anything for the great community of Behind the Steel Curtain. Time to Step Up.

The Steelers this offseason have undergone as much change in their personnel as they have in about five years previous. The subsequent effect has been much more news and topics to talk about concerning the team in general.

This offseason, the collective community of Steeler Nation has bid farewell to some of our favorite players from the last decade of Steeler success, and in a way opens a new era of Steelers football which leaves myself and many others frothing at the mouth for the coming season as we cannot wait to show the rest of the NFL our shiny new toys.

Tissues and Terrible Towels aplenty as we wave farewell to heroes Aaron Smith, Hines Ward, Chris Hoke and James Farrior, and speaking from a Steeler fan since 2002's point of view, so long to four of the players that sparked my initial interest in football let alone the Steelers.

Smith the consumate professional, Ward the battling underdog, Hoke the gutsy technician, and Farrior the vocal leader.

All shall be missed, and with the departure of other Steeler veterans William Gay and Chris Kemoeatu who each held starter roles over the past few seasons, not to mention the questionable statuses of the likes of Rashard Mendenhall, Willie Colon and Casey Hampton, it appears there are some big shoes in Pittsburgh that need filling.

Who out there is ready to Step Up?

Note: The order of the following is in no way prioritized by importance, simply in order of position.

Potential Position Battle #1: Running Back/Backup Running Back

Players to Watch: Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, John Clay, Baron Batch, Chris Rainey

Rashard Mendenhall, the undisputed #1 running back on the Steelers roster, is likely to miss the beginning of the 2012 NFL season whilst he recovers from a torn ACL suffered in Week 17 against the Cleveland Browns.

Isaac Redman(27) is the obvious choice to replace him for that length of time, as he was the player who started the final two games of the Steelers 2011 season (Week 17 + the road playoff at Denver), and rushed for 213 yards on 36 carries combined. Redman, whilst being a fan favorite here on BTSC, is not a complete all around back, and is most effective running between the tackles and griding out tough yards. Is not a bounce outside and outrun defenders type of player. He is though, a tough runner, think a less effective version of Marion Barber, who can effectively keep an offense ticking with his protective running style.

The darkhorse in the stable of backups is Jonathan Dwyer. Dwyer(23) was an excellent runner in college whose stock fell in the draft after a disappointing combine which raised questions about his conditioning and commitment, as well as a drug usage misunderstanding which was later relinquished. Not to mention questions about his NFL readiness after playing in a spread offense at Georgia Tech. When in shape, Dwyer is a better all around athlete than Redman, has a greater burst of speed, but has questions hanging over his ability to show up to camp in shape and has less experience in the regular season. However, he lit up the Titans in 2011 with 107 yards including a 76 yard scamper that set up a touchdown. If Dwyer can get himself in shape, there are carries for the taking just waiting for him. Not to mention his youth could also play a factor, as he is four years Redman's junior.

Redman. Dwyer. Time to Step Up.

Potential Position Battle #2: Slot Receiver

Players to Watch: Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery

Hines Ward's departure leaves a void in the Steelers Wide Receiving corps that needs filling by some younger blood. With Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown the now undisputed 1-2 duo, the focus shifts to the slot position. Todd Haley has consistently used three receiver sets in his offensive schemes with great success, marked notably by the 1000 yard receiver trio of Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston.

Emmanuel Sanders has the youth on his side(25) and still has room to grow. Sanders was unlucky getting injured in the preseason of 2011 which led to the outstanding emergence of Antonio Brown, after Sanders arguably entered the 2011 season as the potential starting receiver next to Ward and Wallace. Sanders is quick and elusive and has pretty good hands. Where he needs to improve in my opinion is his route running and double moves as a receiver. The slot receivers most important role is finding holes in zone coverage and "sitting down" if you will. Ward was a master and Cotchery has proved effective in this in his career too. Sanders needs to prove he is the player many fans think he is and live up to the potential he showed his rookie season.

The classic veteran, Jerricho has had a great career for a guy who much the underdog in his time with the New York Jets. Cotchery will be 30 entering the 2012 season, so he has that working against him for one. Cotchery was an outstanding #2 and slot receiver for the New York Jets, who was shuffled out of the starting lineup when Santonio Holmes came to town. Has outstanding hands, and is generally adept at finding holes in coverages which would be a perfect replacement for Ward, who was a master at this. Still has decent speed and burst, and has more experience dealing with defenses than the younger Sanders. Was injured to begin the 2011 season, but became much more effective as the season progressed. The darkhorse in this battle, but I think Cotchery will surprise.

Sanders. Cotchery. Time to Step Up.

Potential Position Battle #3: Inside Linebacker

Players to watch: Stevenson Sylvester, Larry Foote

Its sad to say, but James Farrior had just lost it by the time the 2011 season had ended. His weight was down, but the speed and initial burst after reacting had just slipped away from him. Farrior will always be one of my favorite Steelers, and will love and respect what he gave us for the rest of my Steelers fandom. It is now officially the time of Lawrence Timmons to assume the vocal defensive role, but he still has a hole next to him that someone needs to step forward and grab.

Stevenson Sylvester has been a fan favorite since he excelled in his rookie year preseason, but unfortunately has not made much of an impact on the field in defensive sets, but has turned into a baller on Special Teams. Sylvester earned himself his first NFL career start against the New England Patriots when James Harrison missed the game with injury and the Steelers opted to put Timmons on the outside and allow Sylvester to team with Foote in the middle. Unfortunately for Sylvester, he proceeded to look absolutely lost throughout the game, which he would later attribute "over-thinking" as the reason behind his zero impact statline. What is working for Sylvester, is that he seems like a smart guy, and knows how to overcome obstacles. This season he also has another complete offseason of training in LeBeau's exotic system, and has greater closure in that he will be seeing extended playing time this season.

Larry Foote was a favorite of mine before leaving for Detroit and I was excited when we brought him back to play in the Burgh. Larry Foote is the non-flashy veteran that compliments any defensive scheme very very well. Foote started five games for the Steelers in 2011 next to Lawrence Timmons and played very well in those games, registering 27 tackles across the contests. Foote is underrated at this point in his career in my own opinion, and what he has working in his favor is a lot more experience in Coach Dad's defensive scheme and still keeps himself in very good shape, and for what he lacks in athleticism compared to Sylvester, he makes up for in savvy play recognition and excellent gap control in defense. Foote would be my preferred choice to start next to Timmons, and he is going to make the younger Sylvester earn every minute of playing time.

Sylvester. Foote. Time to Step Up.

Position Battle #4: 2nd/3rd Cornerback

Players to watch: Keenan Lewis, Curtis Brown, Cortez Allen

William Gay was probably one of the most maligned players by Steeler Nation that I have ever seen in my time. Most of this is attributed to a 2009 season where he took over from the departed Bryant McFadden as the #2 corner and proceeded to be picked on all season long by Quarterbacks. However, in 2011 he reclaimed his starting position and for the most part was very solid and much more mature as a player. However, Gay was offered a contract with the Cardinals and has since moved on, and now, leaves behind some shoes to fill.

Keenan Lewis is the obvious suitor. Lewis was the 96th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, and with him came incredibly high expectations and hopes, most of this contributed to Gay's disappointing 2009 campaign and the desperation of Steeler Nation to find a better replacement. Lewis's time in Pittsburgh so far has been up and down, mixed with poor performances, injuries and being put in Mike Tomlin's doghouse following a stupid personal foul he gave away in a game. However, this past season playing as the main #3 cornerback, Lewis showed improvement in all areas of his performance and proved clutch in closing out the game against Kansas City with a key interception. Letting Gay go shows that the coaches have faith that Lewis can assume the #2 role. He has all the intangibles and measures of a starting cornerback in this league, he just needs to show he can do the job.

Curtis Brown just looks like an NFL cornerback. He comes from a great college (Texas) proven to mould NFL caliber players, and is an outstanding athlete. Taken with the 95th overall pick of the 2011 draft, Brown has had his rookie season and was a proven gunner on special teams. He made a few solid, flashy plays in limited time on defense, and the thing I like the most about Brown is he is a very fluid runner. He turns his hips well and glides after opposing receivers. He has youth on his side, as he is two years younger than Lewis, but it is going to take a very impressive training camp and preseason to jump ahead of Lewis on the depth chart, not to mention he also has fellow 2011 draft and team mate Cortez Allen pushing for playing time behind him. Brown will be a solid cornerback for the Steelers in my opinion, the only question is when that comes to fruition.

Cortez Allen is the extreme darkhorse in this competition of course, and is more pushing for playing time in the third/nickel cornerback role, but he is still worth having a look at in the grand scheme of things. Drafted in the fourth round of the same 2011 draft as Curtis Brown, Allen again has excellent measureables as a cornerback, with good size, speed and jumping ability, he was just the more project coming out of college, hence the season he was proclaimed as a "sleeper steal" in the 4th round by Mel Kiper. Allen now has an excellent chance of seeing more time on the field in defensive snaps, particularly as the league moves towards more three and four receiver sets. Allen is a strong and physical corner who could excel if he can grasp the mental complexities of Dick LeBeau's schemes.

Lewis. Brown. Allen. Time to Step Up.

Part Two coming in the next day or two, highlighting the potential battles at Guard, Tackle and Defensive End.

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