Pittsburgh Steelers: Ziggy Hood and the 7 Players Ready for a Breakout Season
Pittsburgh fell just short of a seventh Lombardi Trophy in 2010, with Green Bay pulling out a slim victory.
Key pieces on the Steelers defense have been battling injuries (Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton), while a few others are bound to lose a step or two in 2011 (James Farrior). In order to make a solid run at another Vince Lombardi Trophy, Pittsburgh will need some other guys to step it up this season.
Here are seven guys who are poised to break out in 2011 and will need to do so in order for the Steelers to make yet another run at No. 7.
Antonio Brown, WR
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Hines Ward, 35, and Antwaan Randle El, 31, do not have too much left in the tank at this point. Mike Wallace broke out last season, being Ben Roethlisberger's go-to guy, but it would be a huge boost if Wallace had a little help on the receiving end.
Tight end Heath Miller is a great option in the receiving game, but having another sure-handed wideout in Roethlisberger's arsenal would do wonders for Pittsburgh's offense.
With just 16 receptions for 167 yards in the 2010 regular season as a rookie, Brown was a non-factor in the offensive system and barely saw the field. But come playoff time Brown made three catches for 75 yards against arch-rival Baltimore, including a 58-yard catch on a 3rd-and-long play—perhaps one of the biggest plays of the entire game.
With Hines Ward and Mike Wallace mentoring Brown, there's no doubt he'll see the field more often this season, and with improved results.
Emmanuel Sanders, WR
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Sanders is another guy who, like Brown, was a rookie wideout in Roethlisberger's offense in 2010.
Sanders saw limited playing time too, starting just one game all season. But his 28 receptions for 376 yards and two touchdowns were a little more productive than Brown.
He never caught more than seven passes for 78 yards in a game (regular and postseason) but was a phenomenal target on third downs, as well as a dual threat as a return man. In three postseason games, Sanders caught just seven passes for 91 yards.
Neither rookie wideout really proved to be a total game-changer, but then again, how often does a team have two rookie wideouts with the type of potential Brown and Sanders have shown? Flashes of brilliance in 2010 give new hope to Pittsburgh's offense.
Selected in the third round of the 2010 draft, Sanders will likely be Ward's replacement once he retires, which could be as early as the end of the 2011 season.
Ziggy Hood, DE
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Ziggy, 24, happens to play the same position as Pittsburgh's Pro Bowl left defensive end Aaron Smith. But with Smith battling injury last season and only starting six games, Ziggy started nine games in his place.
In his second professional season, Ziggy recorded 15 tackles and three sacks while filling in for Smith. The 6'3", 298-pound run stopper didn't hit the field much in his rookie season, seeing limited playing time in all 16 games without any starts.
But with Smith quickly aging (just turned 35 in April), there's no doubt Ziggy's day as Pittsburgh's everyday starter at defensive end is coming rather soon. The drafting of Cameron Heyward in this year's draft shows me that the Steelers are preparing for the day that Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel leave Pittsburgh.
Ziggy has had plenty of practice against Pittsburgh's offense and with the top-tier defense as well. When Hood finally does become the Steelers' everyday starter, I don't expect the defensive line to skip a beat.
Look for Evander "Ziggy" Hood and rookie Cameron Heyward to see plenty of the field in 2011.
Isaac Redman, RB
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It seems as though I may be the only person out there who believes that Redman has potential.
Not as an every-down back, of course, because that's what Rashard Mendenhall and his 1,200-plus yards are there for. But as an undrafted free agent (signed by Pittsburgh in 2009), Redman put up a yards per carry average of 4.7 on 53 attempts last season.
He may not have scored any touchdowns, but with the ability of Redman, not to mention his 6'0", 230-pound frame, Pittsburgh could turn him into a short-yardage back, and he could be a successful one.
Remember how affective it was to have a Jerome Bettis on the roster? Redman is obviously nowhere near Bettis' 252-pound size, but on third downs and goal-line situations it would be great to have a back of Redman's ability.
If Pittsburgh utilizes him the correct way and gives Mendenhall a breather every once in a while, we could see 500 yards and six touchdowns from Redman in 2011. I mean, come on—his nickname isn't "Red Zone" for no reason.
Offensive Line Unit
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I know, I know, it's only supposed to be one player. But the truth is, I really think the entire unit will step its game up in 2011.
Injuries decimated the offensive line last season, and the offense paid drastically for it, allowing 43 sacks (eighth-most in league). The season-ending injuries of both tackles, Willie Colon and blind-side protector Max Starks, forced Pittsburgh to start former Cowboy and five-time Pro Bowler Flozell Adams, who has clearly seen better days.
The biggest positive on the O-line in 2010 was, without a doubt, center Maurkice Pouncey, who made the AFC Pro Bowl squad and received votes for Offensive Rookie of the Year (though he did not win the honor). Pittsburgh was planning on taking his brother in the draft this year, but Miami beat it to the punch, taking guard Mike Pouncey with the 15th overall pick.
With the return of Starks and Colon (Pittsburgh will likely re-sign him), who started 50 consecutive games at right tackle for Pittsburgh at one point, Pittsburgh's offensive line will be back to its 2009 form.
Though guard Trai Essex will also hit the free agent market, I would expect Pittsburgh to bring him back as well, as the third-round draft pick has started 25 games for the Steelers since 2005. If Pittsburgh can keep all the pieces together and stay healthy, I would expect a stellar season from the offensive line in their run for No. 7.
Rookies Cam Heyward and Curtis Brown Looking to Make Splash
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Rather than going after youth for the offensive line, Pittsburgh prepared its defense for the day that the likes of Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel and Ike Taylor (though it will likely bring Taylor back for 2011) can no longer hold their own weight.
With the additions of defensive end Cameron Heyward (first round) and cornerback Curtis Brown (third round), Pittsburgh is preparing its aging defense for the next era. However, I wouldn't be surprised if Heyward sees the field some in 2011—Brown in certain situations as well.
In the second round, Pittsburgh also added some depth to the offensive tackle position, selecting Pouncey's former teammate Marcus Gilbert out of the University of Florida.
These players have a lot to look forward to in 2011 and beyond.