All that any young NFL player wants is an opportunity to get on the field, and whether or not they make the most of the opportunity often decides the fate of an NFL team.
In what was a year of transition for the Pittsburgh Steelers, there were starting spots open at offensive tackle and cornerback and hopes that two young players would be able to step in and fill these voids.
After being selected in the second round of the 2012 draft, Mike Adams had the opportunity to earn a starting job at right or left tackle.
He was a big, physical specimen with outstanding pro potential, but he had a lot to prove, and in training camp and during the preseason, he did not prove himself.
While Adams showed signs of being a dominant run blocker, he struggled in pass protection and was relegated to the bench.
Adams had to step in during the season opener against the Denver Broncos and was beat repeatedly for sacks. His rookie year appeared to be a lost cause.
Meanwhile, the departure of William Gay left an open spot at cornerback opposite of Ike Taylor.
It was a battle between Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen in the preseason, with Lewis eventually coming up on top.
Lewis was not short on confidence. Back in May, he told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he had high aspirations for this season.
“Pro Bowl,” Lewis predicted. “Watch out, this is going to be a big year right here.”
Which player has been a bigger surprise?
Well, not quite.
Lewis struggled to start the season as the Steelers’ defense struggled with three road losses in three games.
It appeared as though the Steelers would have to wait a season for Allen to take over at cornerback and allow Adams to lose his rookie year to learning from the bench.
But then things began to change, and both players started to show more—much more.
Lewis played what may have been the best game of his career last week against the Washington Redskins.
He had three passes defensed—including one that would have resulted in a touchdown—as the Steelers played one of the most complete games of the season.
It was the fourth strong start in a row for Lewis, with the last two games being outstanding.
Though he is not playing at a Pro Bowl level just yet, Lewis is showing that he can be a solid option at cornerback.
He leads the team with 12 passes defensed—all without help from a pass rush—and is fourth on the team with 29 tackles.
The only thing really missing from Lewis’ stat line at this point is interceptions. He currently doesn’t have any, but he is getting closer.
With Ike Taylor’s play improving and Lewis showing that he is more than a capable starter in the league, the Steelers’ defense should continue to get better.
While Lewis’ rise has been impressive, Adams' play since he entered the starting lineup for an injured Marcus Gilbert two weeks ago has been nothing short of brilliant.
Adams looks like an entirely different player. Now, Adams looks like he actually belongs on the field.
It may be a coincidence, but since Adams began to start, the Steelers’ offensive line has had its best two performances of the year.
For the first time since 2008, the Steelers had a 100-yard rusher in back-to-back games.
No one has ever doubted the ability of Adams to be a dominant run blocker, but rather they have doubted his ability to protect Ben Roethlisberger.
According to Pro Football Focus, the combination of Adams and Ramon Foster allowed only one pressure in 72 combined pass rushes against the Washington Redskins.
Not bad, considering his lackluster regular season debut in Denver.
Not only has Adams proven that he is capable as a starter for the Steelers, but also he has shown that he should continue to start, even when Gilbert is healthy.
Between Adams and Lewis, the Steelers have two young players who are gaining prestige as they continue to improve each week.
With the emergence of these young players, if the Steelers can improve in a few other areas, they can become one of the favorites in the weak AFC.