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Spinning Straw Into Gold: The Steelers Dredge up a Win from the Bottom of the Barrel

Note: I published this late last night, and as I read some of the other information on the game more and more names come up, so I'll just update as appropriate.  RR

 The Pittsburgh Steelers ran onto Heinz Field yesterday to face the Tennessee Titans. Billed as pretty much a must-win game for the Steelers, they not only remembered the Titans, they remembered the disrespect of the Terrible Towel, and once again avenged the shade of Myron Cope.

The question is, how? With an injury list that prominently featured some of the Steelers' marquee players, it was understandable that many felt they had no chance against a surprisingly strong Titans team. Of course, the injury list was headed by the only person who actually played, Ben Roethlisberger.

Much has already been made, and rightly so, of Ben's stellar play while injured. That didn't surprise me. Honestly, I'm not sure he doesn't prefer it that way. It takes some of the pressure off of him to perform well and leaves him free to improvise in unexpected ways.

Of course, the fake spike of the ball was improvising in a way that he apparently hadn't clued the rest of the team in on. But when you improvise sometimes you end up in places that nobody knew you were going.

But this post isn't about Ben and the other highly compensated "stars" of the team. This is about the players that took up the slack for the many injured men— the gritty, blue-collar guys that nobody else wanted. To me, they are the real story of today.

The injury bug bit hard and deep this week, leaving the Steelers without a number of veteran starters. So who did they use to fill the holes? A rag-tag assortment of youngsters, career backups, late-round picks, and undrafted free agents

The NT position, arguably the key position in a 3-4 defense, was staffed by a guy many thought should have been cut this year. Chris Hoke was signed by the Steelers as an UDFA when no one took a flyer on him in the 2001 draft. He has spent most of his career quietly spelling Hampton, other than 2004 and 2006, when he started for an injured Hampton.

Not only is Hoke a career backup, but at age 35 he's a year and a half older than Casey Hampton, the guy he replaced. Thus he offers no upside in terms of the long-term picture at NT. 

Today he showed he still has the heart and the will to come in and anchor the defense. He's clearly not the Steelers' NT of the future, but for the present I for one am very glad he's on the team.

Doug Legursky is another UDFA, signed by the Steelers in 2008. A backup for both guard positions as well as center, Legursky was thrown into the spotlight when he had to substitute for the Steelers' Pro Bowl rookie center Maurkice Pouncey in the AFC Championship Game and then the Super Bowl in early 2011.

Legursky won the starting RG job this season, but struggled in that spot. He was injured early in the season, and lost the job to Ramon Foster. Today he proved his worth when he played not only in place of an injured Chris Kemoeatu but also took over at center while Maurkice Pouncey was again taken out of the game for a period. Given the incredible series of injuries which once again are stymying the Steelers this season, we can expect to see a lot more of The Big Legursky. He may never be considered top-drawer starting material, but he's sure useful to have in your hip pocket.

And speaking of Ramon Foster, he is another UDFA who the Steelers signed in 2009. And although the play of any combination of the O linemen has been suspect at best until today, Foster was the starting RG in last February's Super Bowl. And while we're on the subject of the O line, the man that Max Starks was signed to replace, Jonathan Scott, came in for the injured Marcus Gilbert at RT and did a workmanlike job. 

Scott was drafted in 2006 in the fifth round by the Lions, and has rattled around the league before finding a home in Pittsburgh last season. Scott, playing for an injured Max Starks for the latter portion of last season, was the starting LT in the Super Bowl. And although many members of Steeler Nation feel cheated out of a seventh Lombardi by the sub-par play of the Steelers during portions of that game, the offensive line did their job through the vast majority of the game.

Today the guys nobody wanted stepped up and kept Ben upright, with a little help from Max Starks and some creative play-calling by Bruce Arians. 

One of the things they did was some great blocking in the run game today. And who were they blocking for? Not for the Steelers' 2008 first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall—he was sidelined by a nagging hamstring injury and was dressed only as an emergency backup. Who was filling in? None other than UDFA Isaac Redman.

Signed by the Steelers in 2009, Redman spent his first year on the practice squad, but moved up as a backup to Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore last season. (Moore was also sidelined in Sunday's game with a high-ankle sprain.) Redman has done very well in the small number of carries he has gotten, both last season and this year.

So well, in fact, that fans as well as some of the local journalists have been puzzled that he hasn't been used more. He finally had his chance as a starter, and got the tough, unglamorous yards against the Titans by never giving up. 

He left the exciting runs for his backup, Jonathan Dwyer. Originally projected to go much higher in the 2010 draft, the Steelers picked Dwyer up late in the sixth round. The conditioning concerns that had, along with a poor combine, dropped his draft stock also plagued him in training camp in 2010, and he barely managed to make the roster. He only saw action in one game last season. But this was his time to shine, and, running through a hole that even Warren Sapp could have found, he ran for 76 yards. His total for the day was 107 yards.

And speaking of sixth-round draft picks, how about Antonio Brown? He was the Steelers' second sixth-round pick in 2010  His two kick returns averaged over 45 yards apiece. The Steelers definitely got their money's worth today from picks  #188 and #195. But we already knew that about Brown. He has been proving himself to be a playmaker since his kick return for a touchdown in his very first touch of a ball in an NFL game last season—against the Titans. 

And let's not forget one of the guys that picked up a TD yesterday, TE David Johnson. Chosen in the 7th round, pick #242 of the 2009 draft, Johnson has really come into his own this season. The TEs have had to stay in and block a lot this year, but it's nice to see them getting a few catches as well. 

And back on defense, it was sure good to see 2002's seventh round draft pick (#242) Brett Keisel back on the field. We missed you, Brett! And we especially appreciated the "tip" you gave LaMarr Woodley. Feel free to do that anytime you like.

The oft-reviled William Gay had yet another solid game. Whether new DB coach Carnell Lake is responsible or it is just the natural maturation process, Gay has looked very good this season, finally quieting (most) of his detractors. Gay is yet another find in the bottom of the draft—he was chosen by the Steelers in the 5th round, #170, in the 2007 draft.

And I can't end this without mentioning Ryan Mundy. Drafted late in the sixth round in 2008, Mundy has been quietly impressing on special teams. Today everyone noticed him as he took a wobbly but right on target pass from punter Daniel Sepulveda and ran with it to convert a 4th and 5 and keep the offense on the field. The eventual result was a Roethlisberger TD pass to Hines Ward

I'm sure there are guys that I'm missing, but you get the idea. The success of the Steelers during the opening decade of the 21st century has ensured that the top draft picks are not available to them most years. But fortunately for us, few teams excel at finding gold amongst the late-round and UDFA dross like the Steelers do. Today it paid big dividends.