Twice this decade the Pittsburgh Steelers have faced a Super Bowl hangover. Even though they did not win this past one, they do not want to have the same fate as they had the seasons following their last two appearances.
Pittsburgh missed the playoffs in 2006 and 2009 with a combined record of 17-15—not terrible but simply average which is not good enough in the NFL.
The Steelers roster should be in good shape heading into the 2011 season with the exception of the potential loss of starting cornerback Ike Taylor.
Whether they keep him or not, the Steelers still have some holes to plug in their starting lineup as well as depth issues that must be addressed.
Given the Steelers traditionally non-aggressive approach to free agency, the holes in the roster will likely have to be filled by players already on the roster.
Let’s take a look at five players who must step up their performance if the Steelers are to beat the Super Bowl hangover and have another playoff run in 2011.
Emmanuel Sanders had a solid rookie season in 2010 finishing with 28 receptions for 376 yards and two touchdowns. He performed well in the playoffs as well with seven receptions for 91 yards.
Sanders had such a successful rookie season because of his outstanding route running ability and excellent hands.
Over the course of the season, Sanders saw an increased amount of playing time and he will be depended upon to take on a more significant role this upcoming season.
Pittsburgh will expect Sanders to compete with Antwaan Randle El for third on the depth chart. If Sanders continues on his developmental track, he should have no problems achieving that task.
Bruce Arians uses a lot of three wide receiver sets meaning that Sanders will be a key in the success of the Steelers’ offense. With his ability to play on both the inside and outside, Sanders should be a versatile component in the offense.
Another year, another unresolved right guard situation. Expect the right guard position to be a three-way race between Ramon Foster, Doug Legursky and Trai Essex.
Essex fell out of favor last season leaving the position to Foster and Legursky.
While Legurksy may be the better pure player, he is undersized and struggles with larger defensive linemen. This gives Foster a huge (no pun intended) edge.
Foster is a 6’6” 325-pound guard who had an impressive rookie season given his limited playing time, but did not take much of a step forward in year two.
In eight starts at both left and right guard, Foster had one false start and two holding calls and allowed six sacks.
Over his first two seasons, Foster has not been able to outright win the starting job at right guard and Pittsburgh will need him to do just that this season.
Pittsbugh has stability at center now with Maurkice Pouncey but needs an upgrade at both guard positions. Foster is still young and developing and he needs to take some big steps forward this year.
The Steelers’ line still struggled in pass protection last season and had trouble opening up holes for Rashard Mendenhall.
For this offense to reach an elite level with all of its talent at the skill positions the offensive line must step up as a whole and a lot will be placed on Foster given his youth and potential to be the mauler Pittsburgh needs at right guard.
It is a lot to ask for a rookie cornerback to step up their game before they even set foot on an NFL field, but that is exactly what Curtis Brown must do.
Now we are not talking about starting because if we were that would have meant that Ike Taylor left via free agency and the Steelers did not sign a starting caliber cornerback to replace him. Instead, Brown may need to step into the nickel role early in the season.
Typically the Steelers have their rookies, particularly defenders, sit for one season as they learn Dick LeBeau’s complicated defense and make their impact on special teams.
But without a standout cornerback besides Taylor, the Steelers could use anyone who steps up.
At nearly 6’0” 184 pounds, Brown has room to grow into his frame, but has good size for an NFL cornerback and fair speed, running a 4.54-40 yard dash.
Though he is not a playmaker, with only two interceptions in his four-year college career, Brown had 39 career pass breakups. That is the type of production that Pittsburgh could use from their third cornerback.
Brown may have an edge over his competitors because of his fluid hips and ability to change direction as well as his ball awareness. It is a good thing because Pittsburgh will need him.
Keenan Lewis had the look to be a prototypical number two cornerback in the NFL when the Steelers drafted him in 2009.
On the surface, Lewis seems like a prototypical cornerback at 6’0” 208 pounds but only has average speed running a 4.55 in the 40.
Over his first two seasons, Lewis has struggled with injuries which have hindered his development. He has only played in 13 games and has only 12 career tackles and no passes defended.
This year may be Lewis’ final opportunity at a roster spot which is disappointing considering the team had such high hopes for him.
If Lewis finally begins to live up to his potential the Steelers would have themselves a top prospect that could start. The biggest area that he must improve, though, is turning and running with receivers.
Unlike Brown, Lewis does not have fluid hips and that has been one of his biggest struggles so far in his career.
Often teams talk about the potential of a rookie and the fans run with it despite no evidence to back it up.
This perfectly describes Crezdon Butler who many fans believe is a very good cornerback just waiting in the wings.
Keep in mind that this guy could not beat out Bryant McFadden, William Gay, Keenan Lewis or Anthony Madison last season. Granted he was a rookie but the Steelers were in dire need of help at the position.
Butler has all of the physical skills that you want in a cornerback highlighted by his 6’1” height and 4.50 speed in the 40.
Like Lewis, Butler has trouble changing directions which may hold him back, but he performed well in college which is why many are excited what he can bring to the team even though he was only a fifth round selection.
Butler has a couple of things going for him as well. First, he has a year in the system which will make him more comfortable with the defense than Brown. He also has not struggled when given opportunities as Lewis has.
At the very least Butler should compete for the nickel spot and has an outside chance of winning a starting job if Taylor is not retained.
Regardless, the Steelers need Butler to realize his potential this season if they wish to have an improved secondary.
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