For all the talk that the Pittsburgh Steelers are getting old on defense and that their offense will be in disarray under a new coordinator, this is a talented roster with a healthy mix of youth and veterans.
Several Steelers seem poised for a big leap in production in 2012.
The list comes from a mix of young players and slightly more established ones. Here’s a look at six who could make the biggest jump.
Emmanuel Sanders followed up a surprising rookie campaign with an injury-riddled 2011. Now, he’ll have to work extra hard as Antonio Brown’s breakout season pushed him down the depth chart.
I think Sanders is equal to the task and, if healthy, can give the team three top-flight receivers.
Sanders has a deadly mix of speed, agility and intelligence. He knows each of the wide receiver positions and can slot in anywhere. That’s a valuable skill on a team that requires versatility.
He can do the same things that Brown can do and, if he hadn’t been injured, we might be talking about his breakout 2011 season instead.
Sanders seems like a player who’s always motivated to perform. That will serve him well as he makes a big leap in 2012.
This is another situation where more playing time will offer a boost in production.
Isaac Redman is slotted in to be the starting running back for the Steelers this year—a position that seems like a good fit for him so far.
Redman is very deceptive. He’s not a particularly stunning physical specimen, but he plays like a star.
He can squeeze through tiny openings—or create his own—in the offensive line and he can also sneak out to get a pass in the flat or over the middle.
Redman will also play behind a much-improved offensive line. That should help him become the latest in a long line of successful Pittsburgh running backs.
He’s already predicted a Pro Bowl season for himself. That may be a bit lofty, but I think Keenan Lewis can make a huge leap from the part-time player we’ve seen previously to a valuable starter.
I think Lewis could have started last year successfully, but he was blocked by a resurgent William Gay. Gay is with a new team, and Lewis is in a battle for the starting job.
He has the inside track and showed up for offseason programs with the right attitude and work ethic. Mike Tomlin, who puts an emphasis on that, should noticed this in practice.
Lewis has flashed some big-play potential before. With increased playing time, he could position himself well for that Pro Bowl berth he’s longing to get.
Last year was supposed to be a breakout year for Lawrence Timmons, but he was robbed of it by having to move around a lot to cover for injured players. I think that shook up his production a little. Now, he’s back inside and should be able to remain there.
Timmons was taking on a lot of blockers last season as James Farrior slowed down. That likely hurt his work somewhat, but he still had a very successful year.
Timmons could be a Pro Bowler this year. He certainly has the pedigree and will have higher expectations since he will be the top inside linebacker.
Dick LeBeau should feel more comfortable sending him on more blitzes (think James Farrior a few years ago).
Heath Miller’s semi-disappearance was not really his fault.
He has always been a steady blocker and excellent receiver, but Bruce Arians seemed to move away from the tight end in favor of more spread formations and receiver-heavy plays. That figures to be changed under Todd Haley, who values a good tight end.
I think Miller will make a leap back toward the numbers we’ve seen in years past. He’ll probably factor heavily in the red zone, where his bulk and ability to break tackles will lead to bigger numbers.
He also has a chance to be a big target over the middle in the way Hines Ward had been previously. He’s now the team’s best possession receiver along with Jerricho Cotchery.
I think this will be a good year for Miller and perhaps the year he finally gets noticed as one of the league’s best tight ends. It’s about time he got some plaudits.
This is a risky pick.
Curtis Brown was a special teams star as a rookie, but his contributions on defense were virtually nonexistent. That should change this year.
I think that he will put up a serious fight to be the nickelback and he could push Cortez Allen down the depth chart if he shows up well in camp and the preseason.
Brown has big-play potential—something the Steelers sorely lack in their cornerbacks.
Ike Taylor is great at defending receivers. Keenan Lewis has some big-play potential that we’ve already discussed and could be a solid starter.
Brown is the guy who has the most potential for splash plays. If he can show that, keeping him off the field won’t be an option.
I’m not predicting Brown as a Pro Bowl corner or starter, but I think he’ll make the leap from defensive afterthought to valuable cog in Dick LeBeau’s system. He can do that as a nickel, especially in a conference with so many great quarterbacks and receivers.