5 Pittsburgh Steelers Poised for a Breakout Campaign in 2013
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A lot will have to go right for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013 if they want to bounce back from an 8-8 showing in 2012.
Breakout seasons from several players would be a step in the right direction.
Five players seem poised to make major leaps in 2013. Some of them have played at a championship level before and are ready to regain that form. Some are rising stars about to make names for themselves. And of course, there's nothing like a contract year to increase a player's contribution.
If these five Steelers fulfill their promise, a return to the playoffs would be a little more realistic.
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Cortez Allen will make the Steelers look smart in 2013.
The Steelers didn't make much of an attempt to keep Lewis because they were ready to make Allen the starting cornerback opposite Ike Taylor.
When Taylor was lost for the season, early in the Steelers' game at Baltimore in 2012, Allen replaced him and helped the Steelers pull off the upset by breaking up three passes.
With the Steelers fighting for their playoff lives at home against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 16, Allen intercepted two passes, broke up three passes and forced a fumble in a losing effort.
That loss rendered the season finale meaningless, but Allen performed like he was playing for a job. He forced two more fumbles and tied his career high with eight combined tackles.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller ranked Allen the 16th-best cornerback in the NFL in 2012 in his B/R NFL 1,000 series. He ranked Allen ahead of both Lewis (34th) and Taylor (23rd).
Look for the 24-year-old Allen, entering his third year in the NFL, to pick up where he left off last season. He already has shown better ball skills than Lewis, who has just one interception in his four-year career.
After forcing a combined 35 turnovers in 2011 and 2012, the Steelers defense could use Allen's hands.
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Cameron Heyward was another player who understood that he was auditioning for a job in the 2012 season finale.
The defensive end posted a career-high four combined tackles and shared a sack, helping the Steelers avoid a losing season and salvage a split in their two games against the Cleveland Browns.
Heyward was the Steelers' first-round draft pick in 2011. He hasn't yet had the impact expected from a first-round pick, but he's also played behind Brett Keisel.
The 24-year-old Heyward went from 11 combined tackles in 2011 to 20 combined tackles last season. Eight of those tackles in 2012 came in the last four games. He can carry that momentum into 2013.
Even if Heyward remains behind Keisel on the depth chart, he still could have a breakout year as a situational player. At 6'5", 288 pounds, he has the length to be a disruptive force and remain a candidate to start at some point.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller ranked Heyward the NFL's 15th-best 3-4 defensive end for 2012 in his B/R NFL 1,000 series. Miller ranked Heyward ahead of both Ziggy Hood (35th) and Keisel (22nd).
If the Steelers see things that way, Heyward has a shot to start in his third season. Keisel didn't start until his fifth season.
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Steve McLendon is projected to take over for Casey Hampton as the Steelers' starting nose tackle in 2013.
The 27-year-old McLendon might not be the rock in the middle that Hampton was, but he has shown an ability to make splash plays.
According to Steel City Insider, McLendon had two sacks, six quarterback pressures and two tackles for loss in 2012. Hampton had no sacks, nine pressures and five tackles for loss. McLendon, however, played a little more than a quarter of the snaps that Hampton played.
McLendon was a restricted free agent this offseason and visited the Green Bay Packers. The Steelers weren't going to let their Super Bowl XLV tormentors have him and signed him to a three-year contract the next day.
That move showed the Steelers might be willing to sacrifice a little bit of effectiveness against the run for some game-changing plays from McLendon.
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Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers' first-round draft pick in 2010, won the starting job at center in his rookie year and made the Pro Bowl.
His performance since then has hit a plateau, even though he was also a Pro Bowler in 2011 and 2012.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller ranked Pouncey the NFL's 16th-best center for 2012 in his B/R NFL 1,000 series. He fell two spots from his 2011 ranking.
"Pouncey’s reputation as a blocker is better than his actual performance the last two seasons," Miller said.
Perhaps, Pouncey senses it's time to live up to his billing. He told the Altoona Mirror that he intends to take on more of a leadership role in 2013. Even though he'll be just 24 next season, he'll have more starting experience than any projected starter on the offensive line.
Pouncey showed he can be a team player in 2012 when he moved to guard because of injuries and helped the Steelers defeat the Ravens 23-20 at Baltimore. He hadn't played guard since his freshman year at Florida.
According to STATS LLC, via Steel City Insider, Pouncey committed just two penalties in 2012.
The 6'4", 304-pound Pouncey will benefit from the hiring of offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. He has the lean, athletic body type that Bicknell prefers, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
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The Steelers kept Emmanuel Sanders from becoming a New England Patriot by matching their one-year, $2.5 million offer to the restricted free agent.
Sanders becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2014, so he'll be playing with dollar signs in his eyes in 2013.
Look for Sanders to put up some big numbers to increase his value on the open market.
Drafted in the third round in 2010, Sanders is coming off his best season statistically. He posted career highs in 2012 with 44 receptions and an average of 14.2 yards per catch.
While that might seem like a breakout season, Sanders is poised for a real breakout season in 2013. With Mike Wallace gone, he figures to be the Steelers' No. 2 receiver behind Antonio Brown.
He'll have a lot more balls thrown his way. The more he catches, the less chance the salary cap-strapped Steelers have of keeping him in 2014.