I just wanted to throw this discussion starter out there to see what some of you guys thought - are the Steelers making more little mistakes early on in the 2009 season because they are working in a high volume of rookies compared to in years past? It's fairly well documented that rookies don't often see the field much during their first season in Pittsburgh. There have been exceptions, for sure, but for the most part, players are forced to learn the ropes for a year or two behind more seasoned, veteran players before getting their first real crack at making an impact for the Black 'n Gold.
Take last season, for example. The 2008 Rookie of the Year for Pittsburgh was reserve linebacker and special teams contributor, Patrick Bailey, an undrafted free agent rookie out of Duke. Donovan Woods (also undrafted) saw the field sparingly; so did Bruce Davis, the team's 3rd round pick. Other than that though, there was very little playing time for any of Pittsburgh's 1st year players last year.
What about in 2005, the other recent year Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl? The Steelers were introduced the services of Heath Miller that year, and he played quite a bit and fairly well. There was also rookie cornerback Bryant McFadden, who was also forced in to action later in the year due to injuries. Outside of those two, the Steelers other crop of rookies didn't play too much. Trai Essex was used sparingly; same with Chris Kemoeatu and Nate Washington. Undrafted free agent Andre Frazier made a few plays on special teams, and rookie long snapper Greg Warren saw playing time. That's about it though.
This year, the Steelers are incorporating quite a few first year players in to the fold. And they're doing so with mixed results I'd say. 1st round pick Ziggy Hood has played very little, but has appeared in all three games. The team's two 3rd round picks - Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis - have also played early on. Wallace of course has been largely spectacular through three games. He caught 7 passes for 102 yards in Sunday's loss and now has 12 catches on the year, and at least 2 in each of his first three professional games. Despite his outstanding play, he's nevertheless made a few rookie mistakes the past two weeks. The most notable one came last week when he didn't stay in bounds late in the 4th quarter when the Steelers were on the move and trying to set up a potential Jeff Reed game-winning FG. By not staying in bounds, the Steelers left enough time on the clock for Jay Cutler to engineer a game-winning drive of his own following Reed's second costly miss. Wallace looks like he's going to be a player, but he can still help the Steelers chances of winning by eliminating some of the small, mental mistakes that players tend to outgrow as their careers progress.
Then there's Joe Burnett, who muffed his way out of a more prominent role on special teams during the preseason. By doing so, he opened up the door for Stefan Logan to win the return duties. That's all fine and well, and congratulations to Logan for seizing the opportunity and performing fairly well so far, but giving up a roster spot for a return specialist perhaps also has repercussions that aren't necessarily visible or easy to identify just yet.
Then there's Frank Summers, who also was seeing the field frequently before sitting this past Sunday's game out. Summers has shown promise on special teams and he's got every opportunity in the world to learn the nuances of being a professional fullback. But for now, he's missing assignments and not really making his big, bruising frame work for him or the running game.
Again, I'm not really pointing to specific plays or instances where the 2009 Steelers rookie class has cost the team. I'm just making a general point that the team is working in far more young bodies than we are accustomed to. This will pay dividends for the organization down the road, and perhaps even for this team later on in the 2009 season. There will be more growing pains though I'd guess before things really all start to come together for this particular squad. That's part of the process and the reality of life in the National Football League. As fans, we must be both excited about all the fresh talent in the pipeline while also remaining realistic about the growing curve that these young players must face and overcome before consistently contributing to a ballclub with championship aspirations.