A ground game, bruising defense, and physical mindset are essentially historical trademarks of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Sure, there have been exceptions. From Lynn Swann's acrobatics to Tommy Maddox's aerial assault in 2002, the offense has evolved (devolved in the minds of some), or at least adjusted, toward becoming a more efficient passing attack.
Yet, for most of the last forty years and spots of this past decade, the defining characteristics of "Steelers football" have remained true to the origins of the game: tackling, rushing, and defense.
Entering 2011, long gone are the days of Kordell Stewart throwing to receivers of second or third option quality, such as Courtney Hawkins and Charles Johnson. The roster now includes "rockets and retrievers" at receiver, a blend of fast, ball-snagging wideouts that can deliver big plays and big headaches against any secondary.
Unlike previous campaigns such as 1997, where Yancy Thigpen's 1,398 receiving yards stood out exclusively, or even the dynasty years where Swann and Stallworth threatened opposing defensive backs, Pittsburgh enters this year with not one, two, or even three dynamic athletes at the position.
The 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers will have the ability to walk up the line of scrimmage from a spread formation, Ben's "steely" eyes looking over the opposing defense, deciding to which of five supremely talented receivers the ball is going to be delivered.
And, that isn't including tight end Heath Miller, whose hands match his physicality.
A well-rounded, physical veteran.
A blossoming young burner, able to catch balls against his helmet like David Tyree!
A new veteran presence who could be a starter on as many as 20 other rosters.
The conference's most vertical threat.
And, another young speedster who promises to contribute in key spots after a return from injury.
It's difficult to determine which of the team's fine-fingered fellows is going to dominate the statistician's sheet, but each has a unique ability to contribute to the offense when their name is called upon. Given the balance of the Steelers' attack, this may be the first squad in decades to even approach the capability of the 1979 team, the last Pittsburgh squad to lead the league in total offense.
These five men will give defensive coordinators headaches in their various roles about an offense that enters the season fully balanced and very healthy. With franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger entering what many anticipate to be a career season, his bounty of pass catchers almost assure his success, all other elements (offensive line) intact.
The following is a ranking of the Steelers receivers, any of whom are able to stand out with the critical play and hopefully willing to do whatever is necessary to assist the team with the best snag of all- the wins.
MOST MEMORABLE PLAY OF 2010: Sanders caught a 22-yard touchdown against the Oakland Raiders before Richard Seymour, frustrated by the score and impending blowout, was ejected for having punched Ben Roethlisberger.
PREDICTED STATISTICS: 38 catches, 450 yards, 4 touchdowns
Returning from injury in last week's exhibition against the Carolina Panthers, Emmanuel Sanders flashed his ability once more, reminding Steelers fans of their talks about his being the "next Santonio" when he came to the team in 2010 from Southern Methodist.
After his injuries caused him to miss most of the preseason, another budding wideout- Antonio Brown- had the tryout of his life.
The circumstances almost assure Sanders' relegation to fourth on the depth chart once again, a spot from which he caught 28 passes for 376 yards and a pair of touchdowns in 2010.
While Antonio may have appeared more like Santonio (sans the "S") in preseason, Sanders has all of the explosiveness and deceptive ability to leave defensive coordinators scratching their heads. With Hines Ward aging and Jericho Cotchery (who signed a 1-year deal with Pittsburgh) on the injury list to start the year, Sanders has more than enough reason to use this opportunity to explode.
His 4 catches and 60 yards a week ago reminded of how blessed the Steelers are to have such depth at the position. Struggling to get every wideout their desired time on the field or catches is a nice problem to have, and a player of Sanders' potential (nay- ability!) is proof.
With time and experience, Sanders has all of the ability to surpass other members of this list. As the saying goes, he has to "earn his stripes" first, utilizing 2011 to arrange for his time atop the depth chart in future seasons.
MOST MEMORABLE PLAY OF 2010: In overtime against the Browns and amidst an injury-plagued season, Cotchery showed his heart during a diving catch on third down that kept Mark Sanchez and the New York offense on the field (see video).
PREDICTED STATISTICS: 26 catches, 360 yards, 3 touchdowns
He will be remembered for his time with the New York Jets. Deep down, he has "Pittsburgh" in him.
Cotchery exploded into the NFL limelight in 2006 with 82 receptions for 961 yards and six touchdowns. The New York Jets had a fine compliment to receiver Laveranues Coles, and Cotchery was incredibly productive.
Taking flight in 2007, Cotchery had his most productive year, snagging 82 balls for 1,130 yards. While his receptions decreased progressively from 2008 through last season, the receiver continued to show his ability to change games, averaging over 14 yards per catch as recently as 2009.
Playing injured through 2010, his production dipped, but his playoffs proved his ability to contribute has not passed. His five catches for 96 yards led the team in a 28-21 playoff upset of the Patriots.
The physical receiver has been known for his toughness. If that isn't the fiber of a "Pittsburgh guy," what is?
Any doubts? See the video.
His rank on the depth chart at 4 (or even 5) is the best illustration of Pittsburgh's value at the position. While the franchise clearly wants to immerse their young, rising stars into starting action, the veteran Cotchery could easily start on this team or any other. His production won't be in line with this ranking, but his value isn't limited to statistics.
It would be an oversight to ignore his ability, though.
A few weeks ago, Cotchery showed his playmaking skills, blending seamlessly with the personnel on the field, and working with synergy alongside Byron Leftwich. The backup quarterback who was injured against Atlanta found the veteran wideout twice for over 40 yards and a touchdown.
It was preseason. And it was against mostly bench players.
Yet, if the proven commodity can have such a fast impact in such short time, it is proof to his ability to come through at any given moment.
The Steelers are fortunate to have such a deep blend of receivers, and Cotchery- whose receiving skills are currently underrated by many in Steelers Nation- will be the difference in a Steelers win (or two) in 2011.
MOST MEMORABLE PLAY OF 2010: 3rd-and-19. Against the Ravens, whose defense was dominating the Steelers offense late in the fourth quarter, Brown drove in the death nail, hammering their hopes with a catch against his helmet. This amazing play set up Rashard Mendenhall's game winning touchdown.
This actually eclipses another fine play made by Brown in week 2 on special teams, where the speedster took a reverse on the opening kickoff for a touchdown against the Titans.
PREDICTED STATISTICS: 40 catches, 515 yards, 3 touchdowns
On August 28, 2011, following Antonio Brown's magnificent showing against the Atlanta Falcons, a nameless writer predicted Brown as the next great Steelers' receiver and a potential direct replacement for the ability and production lost when Santonio Holmes was traded.
It would be foolish to overlook Brown's feats this preseason, considering the athletic marvel of the accomplishments and previous impact plays from the receiver when it has mattered.
Last season, Brown was a key contributor to the Steelers' fifth trip to the AFC Championship Game in the past decade. On a critical third down, the team needed nineteen long yards for a first down. Ben Roethlisberger found Antonio down the right sideline, who used his speed to get open behind the Baltimore secondary.
The catch by Brown, secured against his helmet in the most critical and seemingly hopeless of situations, proved a couple of things.
First, against the talent-laden Steelers offense, any error can be magnified.
Secondly, Antonio had risen from productive rookie to bonafide legend, securing himself in the annals of Steelers history with one of the greatest catches ever.
When Emmanuel Sanders fell to injury, Sanders was left as the lone, budding burner on a team working hard to determine its depth chart. At receivers, Brown secured his place near the top of the receiving corp.
In nature, flowers bloom over time, and we cannot discern these gradual changes with our own eyes. Videos are kept over the course of weeks and months, then played at hyper-speeds to demonstrate the changes as visible to the naked eye.
Against the Falcons, Brown blossomed at hyper-speed.
Everybody knows that Hines is a well-rounded veteran, able to make amazing catches and knock defenders into the proverbial "next week."
Likewise, Wallace is the burner. It's a given.
If Brown can perform at anywhere near the level fans are hoping, he will elevate the Steelers' receivers from among the league's finest to the absolute best in the game.
Perhaps Antonio will be one of the bigger surprises on the NFL landscape this season. From the optimism in the Steel City regarding his upcoming year, it is easy to forget he only had 16 receptions in 2010.
In 2011? Triple it. If Brown can use this season as a springboard, who knows just how high can can elevate himself in seasons to come?
MOST MEMORABLE PLAY OF 2010: In a nifty, shifty, and determined play against Miami, Ward took a short pass against the Dolphins in for an athletic score that had Hines stamped all over it.
Ward also made a fine, awkward catch for a score nearing the end of the first half in Super Bowl XLV.
PREDICTED STATISTICS: 70 catches, 900 yards, 8 touchdowns
What needs to be said about no. 86?
The man who finishes on his commitments has expressed a desire to return to form in 2011. Apparently, Hines Ward wants to increase his productivity.
Are you brave enough to bet against him? When it comes to the Steelers' all-time leading receiver (and then some), I'd never question his ability to accomplish anything he sets his mind to.
After all, it was Ward parading the streets of Pittsburgh this summer with a "Mirror Ball Trophy."
So many adjectives can describe Hines and the city of Pittsburgh.
From dancing to the field to life, Hines, whose own name has been supplanted in the name "Hines Field," is the essence of the Steelers.
A hard-working blocker and great receiver, the athlete worked against the odds- including his own anatomy, having no ACL in his knee- to become the most accomplished receiver in team history.
Now, he will work just as hard to turn last year's 59 catch campaign- with 755 yards and five touchdowns- into a reflection of his earlier seasons.
No matter the outcome, Ward will be a productive, key element to the Pittsburgh attack, both rushing and passing.
No other receiver can block like Ward. His physicality sets himself apart from his peers, and the combination of both skill sets elevates him from a statistical Hall of Fame outlier to an arguable nominee for a bronze bust.
When (or, should I say to my own chagrin- IF) that bust makes its appearance, that trademark smile will be featured on eternal display.
Expect those pearly whites to flash frequently in 2011, a season where the team's finest receiver looks to make a statement.
MOST MEMORABLE PLAY OF 2010: During a 100-yard performance in Tampa Bay, Wallace kept his concentration and caught a deflected pass in the endzone for a touchdown (see video).
In 2009, Wallace caught a last second touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger, diving in the corner of the endzone to defeat the Packers 37-36. This completed a 503-yard passing day for Big Ben.
PREDICTED STATISTICS: 70 catches, 1,450 yards, 10 touchdowns
Yards per catch. Or- youthful, productive, and celebrated.
Either set of words works well in describing Mike Wallace
Arguably the most vertical threat in the conference (or league), the Steelers have their own version of a talented receiver from across the state. Like Desean Jackson in Philadelphia, Wallace is a threat any time he touches the football, and the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers are going to make Mike Wallace a top 5 fantasy receiver.
While a focus on "fantasy numbers" is counter-intuitive to the pride Pittsburgh has for its brand of football, the production of the team's most dangerous offensive threat (aside from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger) benefits all of it- from the offensive numbers to the running game to the wins. Simply, having a weapon this dangerous opens up everything else.
21.0 yards per catch in 2010. Over 1,200 yards. 10 touchdowns.
Like his mentor, Wallace spoke in the classic Hines Ward mold, determined to get better this coming season.
His goal? 2,000 yards. Needless to say, lofty.
Like anything in life worth attaining, achieving a goal requires setting your expectations higher than the goal itself and working hard to get to your established benchmarker.
Thus, 2,000 yards may be the goal. But, Steelers fans will take a productive 1,500 yard season just the same. The latter can be expected....maybe.
While his goal is ambitious, Wallace has the talent to back it up. However, with so much talent on the offensive side of the ball, the only sacrifice may be individual goals for the production and contributions from the whole. With everyone wanting to participate, some of that potential will be sacrificed.
2011 promises to be a breakout year for the team's best offensive weapon. It should be fun to witness.
Go get 'em, Mike!