Despite a disappointing road loss in Denver, the Pittsburgh Steelers received contributions from a number of up-and-coming players who promise to contribute to their long-term success in 2012.
Likewise, though they didn't make much noise in the Mile High City, I fully expect one or more of the backup tight ends—behind Heath Miller on the depth chart—to have an important role in the Black and Gold's winning ways this season.
Instead of wallowing in self-pity and tapping our feet in hopes of an anticipated redemption against the Jets, let's take a closer look at "three" promising offensive players.
Jonathan Dwyer showed up to training camp in beast mode, and he was the back who was doing the impressing against the Denver Broncos. To watch him live at training camp in Latrobe, Pa., this season was to experience an entirely new player, liberated from the half-hearted condition (and, for that matter, conditioning) in which he had arrived up until this season.
With a little coaxing from Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, Dwyer showed up to camp in the shape of his life this season. Last February, Colbert told SiriusXM NFL Radio:
"He's a big guy, and you know sometimes he's a little too big quite honestly. He has to keep his weight in check, but he's 245 to 255, and he can run.”
Put simply, Jonathan showed up to training camp in the best shape of his life. His production was on par with (or superior to) that of each of his running peers. The suddenly fit and focused Dwyer demonstratively made his case to be a regular-season starter this preseason, clearly the most impressive runner in exhibition.
Against the Denver Broncos, Isaac Redman struggled in the starting role, hitting the line with a hesitation that was reminiscent of other injured backs (see: Willie Parker) who begged for daylight before making yardage.
Though I don't foresee Redman having such struggles in the long-term, nobody can dispute he was thoroughly outperformed by Dwyer, who ran with confidence and conviction on his nine attempts, nearly averaging five yards per rush.
Personally, I believe Dwyer has the intangibles to either start or take an even split of the carries...even after Rashard Mendenhall returns! Beyond just running, Dwyer has been an effective body in blitz pick-up and pass blocking, the type of well-rounded dedication to the ENTIRE position that the Steelers long for.
Though he wouldn't be labelled as an "up-and-comer" by many in the Steel City, Emmanuel Sanders was once considered on equal footing in the bid for a starting receiver spot with Antonio Brown.
However, just as Sanders' development showed such promise, his injury last year opened the door for his peer, Brown, to absolutely astonish fans with his mesmerizing play in replacing the unproductive Hines Ward.
Clearly, it seems the Steelers have the best guy for the job across from Mike Wallace. Brown is, after all, the reigning Most Valuable Player in the Black and Gold locker room.
So, what makes Sanders an "up and comer?" Simply put, because you "ain't seen nothin' yet!"
The Steel City can expect a dramatic rise in production from the supremely fast, dependable and talented "third receiver." How he will share time with veteran Jerricho Cotchery remains to be seen, but it seems likely, barring injury, that Sanders will see a far greater bulk of time on offense.
Personally, I feel that Sanders' speed and quickness would make him an ideal target between the 20s, while Jerricho Cotchery's physically imposing presence in the slot would translate to red zone production. Nevertheless, the nifty and resourceful Sanders has made a handful of key catches during his stead from inside the 20-yard line, including the lone score of the 2011 season opener at Baltimore.
Against the Broncos, on a night that saw the offense in a continuous third-down fight, Sanders hauled in four passes for 55 yards, and his best is yet to come. Even extrapolated over an entire campaign, 16 games of comparable production would bring his totals to 60-plus receptions for approximately 800 yards.
Those expectations may be a bit lofty, but nobody should count out the potential of the 'Burgh's No. 3 wideout who could start for many NFL teams.
In fact, when it wasn't certain that Mike Wallace would return, many declared that the offense could be fine in his absence with Sanders at the other outside receiver spot.
Finally, the final impact player on offense will be a combination that I'll simply refer to as "second tight end." This is comprised of the responsibilities that will be shared by Leonard Pope and Weslye Saunders. Um, just after Saunders comes back from his early-season suspension, that is...
Though he will not have the noteworthy glamor stats of his peers, particularly in comparison to starting tight end Miller, I believe that Saunders' superior run-blocking skills compared to Pope will make him a more ideal second option on most plays, including instances of sharing the field with his peer ends.
With the success of multiple tight-end sets among many novel NFL offenses, Todd Haley, an offensive innovator in his own right, is one to emulate such success. Also, he has a track record of taking advantage of personnel, and the trio of tight ends at his disposal is too unique to ignore.
Saunders' blocking will help aid a run game that got off to a questionable start in Week 1, and his capable hands could even haul in a few passes over the course of the season. In the red zone, however, it is likely that Pope will begin to get more attention.
He has been a moderately targeted player in Haley's offenses elsewhere, and his height, build and soft hands make him an ideal target in the red zone for a team looking to dramatically improve its touchdown efficiency.
Heath Miller is a heralded player in the Steel City, revered as a hard-working, underrated, blue-collar tight end who plays the position the right way, which is to say the "Steelers way." However, by the end of 2012, Miller may not be the only tight end on the roster who causes the legions of Pittsburgh fans to nod in agreeable admiration.