Pittsburgh Steelers' Top 8 Underrated Offensive Weapons in 2012

Joshua Hayes@@JayPHayes1982Correspondent IIJuly 26, 2012

Pittsburgh Steelers' Top 8 Underrated Offensive Weapons in 2012

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers offense is a cornucopia of talent, but that abundance of skill did not translate to the scoreboard in 2011. Despite their riches, the team finished 21st in the NFL in total scoring last season. Reasons cited for the disappointing point total include offensive line inconsistency, questionable play-calling and poor red zone touchdown percentage.

    With dreams of a seventh Lombardi Trophy and expectations for a third consecutive trip to the playoffs, the team addressed the concern areas above. It drafted highly touted offensive linemen, hired a new offensive coordinator and renewed its focus on offensive balance and utilizing key talent.

    While the end result can be good or bad, the intention behind change is always positive. Everybody knows that a unit with talents like Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Wallace (hopefully?), Antonio Brown and Heath Miller will see its share of successes.

    However, which offensive players could have a greater than expected role in fulfilling the expectations for the unit as an efficient, productive and dangerous scoring machine?

    The following eight players are among the offensive talents flying under the radar, whose skills and potential contributions could surprise many in Steeler Nation in 2012.

Chris Rainey and Baron Batch

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    Excitement is high for the two fast backs, but could one or both of these potential studs exceed expectations with a larger than expected role?

    Rainey is small. Some would even describe him as mini. But sometimes, mini and mighty go hand-in-hand. Or, more particularly in the former Gator's case, "small as a locket, but fast as a rocket!"

    Between Chris Rainey and former rookie and current redemption-seeker Baron Batch, the Men of Steel boast a pair of backs who can help turn them into being even more so the "Men of Thrill" as early as September. 

    The ability to set up the screen pass to either of the two fast backs exemplifies the phrase "giving an inch and taking a mile."

    While this assists them with traditional screen plays, it also makes them viable receiving targets in any number of formations, including the spread offense. 

    Reports of Rainey, a true rookie, and Batch are promising. Each has fine hands, dynamic playmaking ability and all the skills to potentially be a Steelers sort of answer to Ray Rice. 

    This not only makes it easier for the Steelers to disguise their intentions and formations in the huddle and pre-snap (sending a back into motion), but it gives the team another viable playmaking threat that can be utilized on any number of passing plays and downs.

    The luxury of a dual-threat fast back is a deadly threat that the team cannot afford not to utilize!

    Particularly with Rainey, a clear playmaker in the passing game, finding the soft spot of the defense or burning a covering linebacker could give the Ravens defense the type of late-down fits that have haunted the Steelers in recent games.

    While even Gators fans may feel this is overstating it quite a bit so early, the early accolades certainly suggest that promise rests on the shoulders of the former Florida standout. 

Emmanuel Sanders

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    Mike Wallace had better be careful. While most fully expect the two sides to come to an accord, resulting in No. 17’s eventual camp arrival, there are certainly no guarantees that the explosive wideout will line up in Denver on opening night…or beyond.

    While many fans fret his absence, others are refusing to sweat. Many believe that Wallace’s refusal to play would simply be the gateway for Emmanuel Sanders to finally meet his potential as last year’s Antonio Brown…revisited!

    FEW are not the fans who considered Sanders and Brown to be in the same class of receiver prior to Emmanuel’s injury. FEW are also not the fans who speculate that Sanders and Brown could have a better chemistry on opposite sides of the field than Wallace and Brown. 

    Sanders has already showcased himself as an able, nifty, fast and sure-handed receiver with a penchant for making the unexpected play at a key time. In fact, his were the only hands to find a football in the end zone on opening weekend last season. 

    Likewise, though few truly perceive Wallace as an actual one-trick pony, nobody doubts that his ability to get open downfield far exceeds his talent as a route-runner and intermediate pass catcher. In this way, Sanders is the likely superior product, able to run decisive routes and surely capable of a similar chemistry with Big Ben as Antonio developed with his opportunity last season.

    No matter what, Sanders will be a threatening third or fourth option in the 2012 Steelers offense. However, it is truly intriguing to consider just how dangerous he could be as a top-tier receiver.

    Recently, I projected Sanders' statistics to increase only mildly, and I feel Jericho Cotchery will be the beneficiary of increased time in the red zone and slot more so than Sanders. I'd be happy with either player contributing in the role.

    Make no mistake that my predictions are not meant as an insult, Sanders is supremely talented, and he could shock the world in 2012. Deep down, could he even be hoping Wallace holds out? Though he'd never admit it, perhaps even to himself, somewhere deep down, he has to be wondering how life would be IF.....  IF....  (wry smile) you know...

    Better sign that dotted line fast, Mike!

Leonard Pope and Wesley Saunders

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    As tight ends in the Steel City go, nobody will dispute that Heath Miller is as solid as they come. In Pittsburgh, Miller is heralded for his ability to make the huge catch, but he is even more celebrated for his humble willingness to forego a mountainous role in the passing game. Instead, he fulfills the blocking role of more traditional tight ends while being a viable threat in the passing game with hands as soft as the game’s best pass-catchers at the position.

    For that very reason, Miller is quite underrated nationally, where fantasy numbers and bulk statistics are the litmus test for perceived modern greatness.

    Locally, however, a pair of tight ends with important roles may also not receive quite the accolades that they could warrant in 2012.

    The first is Weslye Saunders, who is suspended early in the season due to a positive drug test. While his productivity in the passing game is easily not confused with No. 83, he did show off soft hands on an amazing touchdown reception against the Chiefs last season.  Certainly, Todd Haley noticed from the other sideline, particularly considering that Saunders also boasts sound blocking ability. 

    However, Weslye may have an uphill battle to reclaim his backup tight end spot upon his return considering the team’s acquisition of Leonard Pope.

    As the new offense is concerned, Pope falls in line with the goals of the system beautifully. First and foremost, his familiarity with Todd Haley’s offensive system in both Arizona and Kansas City, speaks volumes in two ways. 

    1. He should be able to help teammates learn the particulars of the offense while easily blending into the system himself.

    2. Todd Haley and the Steelers' acquisition of Pope speaks well of his ability and his relationship with the coach. Sharing the field in three straight cities is not a coincidence.

    In nine seasons, Pope has started approximately half of his career games, catching 102 passes for nearly 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns. Making a reception on two-thirds of his targets, Pope’s 6’8” frame is clearly hard to defend.

    In the congested part of the field that is the red zone, speed is often easier to negate. On an offense that put so much focus on its receivers’ speed, often at the cost of forgetting other viable weapons deep in opposing territory, this is a reasonable explanation for the low touchdown conversion percentage. 

    Make no mistake that Pope, along with the other tight ends on Pittsburgh’s roster, will be called upon to score points for a team that is extremely focused on improving in tightly defensed red zone area. A big-bodied, sure-handed and TALL tight end will come in quite handy

Jonathan Dwyer

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    With Rashard Mendenhall out of the lineup against the Tennessee Titans in 2011, the Pittsburgh Steelers put the onus of responsibility for the running game on backs Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer. The Men of Steel surely hope that the repeat of the above scenario, which promises to see “Mendy” mending until at least late October, result in similar success.

    Fans caught that fascinating glimmer of potential as the backs combined for one of the most successful running games of the season. While Redman saw most of the carries, Dwyer—who competes in camp to backup the starter at the beginning of ’12—made the most of his eleven handles, eclipsing the 100-yard benchmark. 

    Including among his 107 yards were a 76-yard burst and a touchdown. Even more impressive may have been his indirect contribution, forcing the defense to honor the play-action passing game opening the door to five Ben Roethlisberger touchdown passes.

    The Steelers have to decide if his performance was an aberration or a showcase of Dwyer’s upside.  In the past, a knock on the back’s commitment to excellence has been his arrival at camp overweight and out of shape. However, the young runner has made his steely-eyed focus to show up in tip-top shape well-known, and all early reports indicate that he is in his best professional shape to-date.

    With a focus on conditioning and a training camp battle looming, I believe the end result for Dwyer will be improvement, translating to a roster spot and key contributions in spot work.

    With John Clay desirous of what could very well be one roster spot between the two players, Dwyer will certainly have to earn his stripes. Clay is a physical runner, able to break tackles and showcase his value, particularly on the coveted third and short. 

    However, Dwyer is the better balanced runner, though his main advantage may be his skills of recognition in pass protection. While on the field, the young back was ahead of the curve last season as a pass blocker, an attribute that many inexperienced players struggle to develop. 

    Additionally, his ability to contribute on special teams makes Dwyer even more marketable when the roster is set.

Rashard Mendenhall

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    Yep, that’s right. Mr. October (or, at least, he hopes) is expected to return to action later in 2012. While questions regarding his ability to perform following a devastating injury will continue to loom until he gets back into the swing of things, the fact is that Mendenhall was underrated even prior to his late season misfortune.

    His critics cite his unwillingness to simply hit “the hole” (a phrase that has been used fairly liberally in recent times regarding run blocking in the Steel City), saying he channels “too much Dante Hall where there should be a Jerome Bettis.”

    Nevertheless, the sub-par, or at least off-and-on, run blocking of recent seasons has made juking and jiving in the backfield a near necessity in many spots. For the yardage that was lost on his occasional hesitations, Rashard’s more critical fans conveniently forget that the agile, well-balanced and crafty back was often able to change directions for big gains, particularly around tackle.

    Let’s not forget that this is a back who has gained 3,300 yards and 29 touchdowns over a three year span. Moreover, the quietly productive and deceptively strong-bodied work horse for the Steelers in the past three years is certainly able to hit the hole, as well as make his own opening. For reference, see the 2010-11 postseason, particularly a fourth-quarter touchdown against the Ravens and a masterful 60-minute effort against the Jets.

    While Isaac Redman finished off last season with pizzazz, averaging over seven yards per attempt in the final two games, his was a small sample that will be almost impossible to duplicate over the first half of the upcoming season.

    Whether or not Mendenhall is the complete embodiment of his former self, he will return to the lineup this season. Until then, and perhaps beyond, the Steelers will need current roster members to step up, circa 2010 when the team began the first month without its franchise quarterback. 

    Put me in the category of fans who expect Rashard to contribute critical yards and a few important scores when the march to the playoffs begins in the season’s second half.

Jericho Cotchery

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    Veteran experience? Check.

    Productivity? Check.

    Leadership skills? Check.

    Losing Hines Ward certainly was an emotional experience for Steelers Country, but few are the fans that still refute that it was well beyond No. 86’s time to move on from football, particularly considering his steady decline in production.

    As the second receiver, Antonio Brown filled the void nicely late last season, dazzling fans and beguiling opponents who felt 3rd-and-19 actually favored the defense (scoff!).

    Yet earlier in his career, Ward was a stalwart at the slot position. Tunch Ilkin often described him as “tougher than woodpecker lips," both for his ability to block as well as get his nose dirty over the middle.

    This was particularly helpful in the red zone, as touchdowns to the sure-handed one on slant patterns became the latest craze that Steelers fans took for granted.

    Cotchery fulfills the many of the attributes lost by Hines’ departure, and his productivity—particularly in the clutch during last year’s playoff at Denver—increased as the season progressed. There is no reason that the acclaimed receiver shouldn’t celebrate his twilight as an important cog in the Steelers' new offense in 2012.