Pittsburgh Steelers: Antonio Brown and Surprise Performers in 2011
The Pittsburgh Steelers are clicking on all cylinders once again sports fans!
That's right, even after two losses to the Baltimore Ravens the Steelers are still right where they need to be. The Steelers and Ravens are both 9-3 and the Bengals slipped to 7-5 after being flattened 35-7 by the Steelers.
While there are several familiar faces leading the team like Big Ben Roethlisberger, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, many new faces are becoming stars. This team seems to have the perfect blend of seasoned veterans and young players.
Even more important, there are a handful of players who have embraced increased roles on the team and have earned their spot. This is what it will take to make another Super Bowl run.
Let's take a look at a few players who have stepped up big this season.
Antonio Brown, Wide Receiver
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Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown has gone from being nonexistent to a star in two years.
As a rookie last season, Brown only played in nine games and caught 16 passes for 167 yards and no touchdowns. While he showed potential after the catch with his speed and quickness, I wasn't sure he would get a chance to contribute anytime soon.
This season started out much the same with Brown only catching two passes for 14 yards Week 1.
After this however, he has exploded. Ben started to target him more often as Mike Wallace started to draw double-teams and zone coverage, and hasn't stopped. Brown has been like a veteran out there, catching everything thrown his way no matter how hard he gets hit.
Brown has 50 receptions for 775 yards with a touchdown this season. He also returned a punt 60 yards for a touchdown which blew the game wide open.
Antonio Brown also shows some of the toughness Hines Ward has for so many years.
He has become one of Big Ben's favorite targets and who can blame him. This kid knows how to make big plays in key situations.
It certainly looks like he will surpass 1,000 yards receiving along with teammate Mike Wallace before the regular season ends.
Isaac Redman, Running Back
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Running back Isaac Redman has been a huge boost off of the bench.
The Pittsburgh Steelers don't rely on the running game anymore, passing the ball over 60 percent of the time. This takes a lot of carries and yards away from the running backs, primarily Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman.
It would be understandable if Redman were to get a bit down and not perform well only getting a few carries a game. He is the opposite though, taking advantage of every carry he gets. Redman is averaging four yards a carry on 67 attempts, and runs over defenders with regularity.
Mendenhall runs hard too, but Redman flat out punishes defenders like Jerome Bettis used to.
He won't put up many yards or score often, but Isaac Redman has stepped up in a big way this season. He and Mendenhall are able to be fresh, and this is key for any running back. Look how worn down Willie Parker got towards the end of his career with the Steelers.
Mike Tomlin doesn't want this to happen to Mendenhall, and Redman's success has helped the cause.
James Farrior, Linebacker
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The willy old veteran is still out there making plays!
James Farrior, a 15-year veteran linebacker, may have lost a step or two, but he knows where to be on the football field. Farrior is currently third on the team in tackles with 57. He also has two sacks and three passes defended.
He has come up big when James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley were sidelined with injuries too. He isn't a starting caliber linebacker anymore but he doesn't have to be. He does what the play calls for him to do and plays assignment football.
Steelers fans seem to be getting tired of him, and I cannot even guess how many times his age is referenced a week! I don't care that he's 36 years old, the man can still play well enough.
If he continues to play at this level and Woodley and Harrison stay healthy, this defense will get better each week as it has been.
Keep showing everyone what you can do James!
William Gay, Defensive Back
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Love him or hate him, defensive back William Gay has come a long way since his rookie season.
Not only has he improved his coverage, he tackles much better and plays the ball better in the air. He may miss time a jump on occasion, but so does Ike Taylor who Steeler fans think does no wrong. Gay has become a more physical DB as well which was needed desperately.
Big-play Willie Gay is also a vocal leader. If you notice, he is always getting players fired up and leading the charge when the Steelers make a big play offensively or defensively. The guy is happy to be a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Sure, he still has improving to do but who doesn't? Gay was a huge liability last season and he is quickly putting that in the past.
He's made several key tackles and had his hands on a couple turnovers as well. He has provided a much needed spark to this defense in a season where the Steelers haven't forced many turnovers. Going into the playoffs I encourage every Steeler fan and otherwise to keep an eye on Willie Gay.
After all the hating this guy has taken it's time to give him his props. He will be a key reason the Steelers are successful on defense from here on out.
Max Starks, Offensive Tackle
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Good thing Max Starks answered his phone when the Pittsburgh Steelers made the call.
Starks was happily retired and wasn't signed because he had eaten himself completely out of shape. At almost 30 years old, I wasn't sure bringing him back would be a good idea. Losing all that weight and getting into game shape when the season had already started is never ideal.
A couple of games in, the Steelers offensive line was like a set of turnstiles to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. At this point myself and millions of other Steelers fans were hoping for some changes. I have to give a ton of credit to Max Starks now that he is back.
This guy has made a huge difference on the offensive line and looks as good as he ever did. While he isn't a great player, the Steelers and Big Ben should pay him whatever he wants. He has elevated the play of the entire offensive line for sure.
If not for the 6'8" Starks, Ben may not still be healthy enough to play. He still gets hit too often but the offense is able to move the ball. Ben himself admits that his style of play leads to many of those sacks he takes.
If Starks can stay healthy he will continue to be the difference maker that gives Ben the time he needs.