6 Steelers Who Need Breakout Seasons in 2012
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Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis talks a good game, doesn't he?
Lewis is entering his fourth year in the NFL. He has one career interception and is locked in a three-way battle for a starting cornerback job.
That doesn't stop him, however, from predicting that he'll make the Pro Bowl in 2012, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
First Lewis has to beat out second-year men Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen in the race to start opposite Ike Taylor.
If Lewis wins the job, then he'll have to put his money where his mouth is and have a breakout season, because that's what it will take for him to make the Pro Bowl.
Lewis is one of six Steelers who need to have a breakout year if the 2012 season is going to have a happier ending than 2011.
Keenan Lewis, CB
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This is one of those rare occasions when a player running his mouth actually helps the team.
Keenan Lewis didn't create bulletin-board material for the Baltimore Ravens with his Pro-Bowl declaration.
Instead, he might have provided Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown with motivation to beat him out as the starting left cornerback.
A little healthy competition can't hurt.
Lewis' cockiness automatically puts him on the list of Steelers who need to have a breakout season in 2012.
Lewis has had to fight to stay on the team in training camp each August. He got into every game last season, highlighted by his game-clinching interception in the final minute of the Steelers' 13-9 win in Kansas City.
It was one of just 11 interceptions by the Steelers in 2011, tied for 24th in the league. Ike Taylor, who's never had more than three interceptions in a season, isn't going to help in that category.
So the onus will be on the other starting cornerback, whether it's Lewis, Allen or Brown.
Stevenson Sylvester, ILB
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When the Steelers cut James Farrior, it created an opportunity for some promotions on the inside linebacker depth chart.
Larry Foote, who will turn 32 on June 12, likely will hold the position down until a younger player can take over.
The Steelers signaled that they're not so sure Sylvester is the guy when they chose Sean Spence of Miami in the third round of the NFL draft.
Spence's electrifying highlight reel makes it easy to forget about Sylvester, who in two seasons has 21 career tackles and two forced fumbles on special teams.
Sylvester started at inside linebacker in the Steelers' 25-17 win over the Patriots last season, perhaps the high point of 2011 for the Steelers.
That was Sylvester's only career start. If he wants more, he can't let Spence get ahead of him on the depth chart.
Jason Worilds, OLB
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Jason Worilds has shown flashes, but he needs to get to the quarterback more consistently.
LaMarr Woodley was never the same last season after he injured his hamstring in Week 8 against the Patriots. Worilds can't be expected to completely fill Woodley's pass-rushing shoes, but in seven starts after Woodley's injury last season, he had three sacks.
That projects to less than seven sacks over a full season. That wouldn't get Worilds into the top 40 on the NFL sack list.
One of the reasons Tim Tebow torched the Steelers defense in Denver is because he wasn't sacked. Woodley started the AFC Wild-Card playoff game, but had little impact. Worilds didn't have much of an impact, either.
If Woodley and James Harrison can stay healthy, Worilds likely won't start in 2012. However, the Steelers can't afford to have an injury shut off their pass rush like it did in 2011. They had just 35 sacks in the regular season, tied for 17th in the league.
That's not Steeler football.
As a second-round draft pick, Worilds needs to contribute more entering his third season.
Ziggy Hood, DE
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Evander "Ziggy" Hood hasn't been bad in his three years with the Steelers.
However, "not bad" doesn't win championships.
Hood needs to take a step forward in 2012. The Steelers allowed 99.8 rushing yards per game in 2011, according to NFL.com, the most they've allowed since going 6-10 in 2003. The defensive line has something to do with that.
Brett Keisel likely has one of the defensive end spots locked down, with Hood and second-year man Cameron Heyward battling for the other DE spot.
Keisel will turn 34 in September, and he injured his groin in the playoff loss to Denver. If there's any decline in Keisel's play, or if his body breaks down any more, the other defensive end will need to have more of an impact.
The Steelers need a lot more than nothing out of a first-round draft pick entering his fourth season.
Isaac Redman, RB
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Isaac Redman is one of the few Steelers who deserve no blame for the playoff loss in Denver.
Redman rose to the occasion, gaining 121 yards on 17 carries for an average of 7.1 yards per carry in just his second career start.
One of those carries was a 32-yard run that brought the Steelers to the Denver 1-yard line and set up a touchdown that cut the score to 20-13 in the third quarter.
Redman was pressed into full-time duty when Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in the 2011 regular-season finale against Cleveland. Although he fumbled twice, Redman ran for 92 yards on 19 carries with a touchdown.
Without Redman's game-winning, 9-yard touchdown catch on third down, no one remembers Troy Polamalu's strip sack of Joe Flacco at Baltimore in 2010. The Steelers likely wouldn't have reached the Super Bowl without that win. They probably would have had to play a wild-card game then go back to Baltimore.
There's a strong chance Mendenhall will start the 2012 season on the physically-unable-to-perform list, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review via Pro Football Talk. So Redman has a chance to prove he's a better running back than Mendenhall.
The more there is at stake, the better Redman tends to perform. In this case, a starting running back job is at stake.
Heath Miller, TE
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Saying Heath Miller needs to have a breakout season in 2012 doesn't mean his performance leaves anything to be desired.
It just means that Miller has an opportunity to flourish in Todd Haley's system.
Miller was the first player Haley mentioned by both first and last name at his introductory press conference as offensive coordinator, saying he's "one of my favorite players that I've studied and prepared for."
Miller caught 51 passes in 2011. The only other season in which he caught more than 50 passes was 2009, when he caught 76.
The Steelers offense needs to be more efficient. Ben Roethlisberger's ability to make something out of broken plays is cool to watch, but it wouldn't hurt to look for Miller more and make those 10-yard completions over the middle.
That's what Roethlisberger did in the Steelers' 25-17 win over the Patriots in 2011. Miller had his best game of the season, catching seven passes for 85 yards. Six of those catches and 76 of those yards came in the first quarter, when the Steelers built a 10-0 lead.
By essentially using their short passing game as their running game, the Steelers gave the Patriots a taste of their own medicine.
The Steelers cleared a hurdle in that game by beating Tom Brady for just the second time. Unfortunately, that regular-season win is the most cherished memory of the 2011 season for Steelers fans.
For the Steelers to provide pleasant postseason memories in 2012, those chants of "HEEEEEAAAAATH!" at Heinz Field and Steelers bars across the country need to be more frequent.