Pittsburgh Steelers: Who Will Have an Increased Role in 2012?
There have been no shortage of headlines for the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason.
First it was the Bruce Arians saga. Then there was the question as to who actually hired Todd Haley. That was followed up by the drama between Ben Roethlisberger and Haley not meeting, the potential release of Hines Ward, whether or not the Steelers can keep Mike Wallace and Roethlisberger and Haley still not talking.
Had enough yet?
While many questions can arise from these situations, several of them have also been overstated. In fact, there have been some actual football news overshadowed by the major headlines.
The football news include a change along the offensive line and the return game. Several players are going to be stepping into more important roles next season. Here is a look at them.
Emmanuel Sanders to Return Kicks and Punts
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Last Sunday, Emmanuel Sanders told ESPN Radio AM 970 that he would return kicks and punts next season as Tweeted by the Observer-Reporter's Dale Lolley.
Sanders will replace one of the most dynamic return men in the league in Antonio Brown.
Brown earned a Pro Bowl Berth this season as a wide receiver and a kick returner as he became the first player in NFL history to gain 1,000 receiving yards and 1,000 return yards in the same season.
Sanders has performed fairly well in the kick return game with 30 returns for 721 yards, but has only returned seven punts.
Besides an increased role returning kicks, Sanders figures to be a bigger part of the offense as the No. 3 receiver this season.
Marcus Gilbert to Left Tackle
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The other big news this week came from general manage Kevin Colbert in an interview with 93.7 The Fan.
Colbert told the radio station that Marcus Gilbert would move from right to left tackle. The move is not a surprise given the ACL injury to Max Starks.
Gilbert started 13 games at right tackle last season and performed well as he was rarely overmatched.
Though Gilbert's role is not increased in the amount of snaps that he will see, it does represent a more important position protecting Roethlisberger's blindside. He will have to prove himself matching up against the elite pass rushers in the league.
There is a chance that the Steelers could find a better option, but Gilbert remaining on the left side is a good bet.
Isaac Redman as the Top Running Back
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No player will have bigger shoes to fill than Isaac Redman, but if last year's audition taught us anything, he is ready for the starting role.
Redman is going to have to step in for Rashard Mendenhall, who will be recovering from an ACL injury, and he figures to carry a big load.
Last season, Redman performed well with 479 yards on 110 carries and three touchdowns. He finished the season off strong with 92 yards in the regular-season finale against the Cleveland Browns and 121 yards in the playoffs against the Denver Broncos.
Redman figures to play a large role in the red zone where his powerful running style will bode well in tight-yardage situations.
Cameron Heyward with More Snaps
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Pittsburgh's first-round choice in 2011, Cameron Heyward, should have an increased role next season with a year under his belt.
Heyward flashed potential last year, but did not put up many stats. He finished with 10 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a pass defensed.
The Steelers like to use a three-man rotation at defensive end and the injury to Aaron Smith and Heyward's inexperience limited that.
This will not be an option next year as Heyward is the top backup and will be needed to give both Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood rest.
Heyward may see time opposite of Keisel if the Steelers elect to play Hood at nose tackle.
Steve McLendon at Nose Tackle
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Chris Hoke has retired and there is a question mark that looms over Casey Hampton's status as a member of the Steelers.
That leaves Steve McLendon as the team's only experienced nose tackle right now.
McLendon overtook Hoke as the backup nose tackle last season and will not relinquish that spot this year. He may actually have more to do depending on what the Steelers decide at the position.
If Hampton stays, he may not be ready for the start of the season and McLendon could be the starter for the first half of the year.
The same scenario could play out with McLendon starting the season at nose tackle if the Steelers spend an early draft choice on the position.
At worst, McLendon will see a lot of snaps as the primary backup and that is the role that he will excel in most.
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