Thursday, November 03, 2011

Young, fast Steelers

Thursday, November 3, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 30: Antonio Brown(notes) #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers returns the ball on the opening kick off against Kyle Arrington(notes) #24 of the New England Patriots at Heinz Field on October 30, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Warren Sapp was partially right when he called the Steelers old, slow and done after their season-opening debacle in Baltimore.

Lots of them are old.

Some of them have slowed.

Sadly, at least one of them (Aaron Smith) appears to be done.

But what Sapp failed to comprehend is what a lot of people didn't realize until they watched the Steelers whip the New England Patriots last Sunday: An infusion of quality youth has made this team better than it was last season.

Young, fast contributors at the receiver position enabled offensive coordinator Bruce Arians to unleash a 50-pass assault on the Patriots.

Young, fast contributors in the secondary enabled defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to use man coverage all over the field.

Last year's lineup did not lend itself to those kinds of game plans.

Keenan Lewis was in no-man's land this time last season. Now, he is an important contributor at cornerback. Antonio Brown was a nonfactor halfway through last season. Now, he is coming off a game in which he was targeted a team-high 15 times.

Here's a stat for Sapp to chew on, between his other nine meals a day: The Steelers last weekend fielded the second-youngest starting offense in the AFC, one of only two (Denver) without a starter 30 or older.

The average age of Steelers' offense was 25.5. That was significantly younger than the Ravens' offense (28.1), younger even than the Browns and Bengals.

"That's pretty cool," said tackle Max Starks, the unit's elder statesman at 29 — two months older than Ben Roethlisberger. "I knew we had some young faces, new faces, but I didn't realize that — and I guess I didn't realize I was the oldest one. ... Thanks."

Hines Ward — one of the guys Sapp ripped — remains a capable contributor at 35. One who could come in handy Sunday in the Ravens rematch. But the Patriots game provided graphic evidence that transition to life without Ward, whenever it happens, should be smooth.

The emergence of Brown, the improvement of Emmanuel Sanders and the evolution of Mike Wallace make this an infinitely more dangerous offense than last year's.

"We know Wallace can pop the top off a defense, and the quickness of 84 (Brown) and 88 (Sanders) presents problems," said Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, who already had great respect for the Steelers offense.

"This is the only team," Suggs said, "that I've ever considered us having our hands full with, with the run and pass alike."

Wallace, 25, is establishing himself as a top-five receiver. Everybody knows about his speed. He is proving himself in the possession game.

Sanders, 24, has 10 catches in the past two weeks, though his availability is in doubt for Sunday. Rookie tight end Weslye Saunders, 22, has been quietly effective in multiple tight-end formations.

This is finally starting to look like an offense that can take on multiple personalities, tailored specifically to the opponent.

"We have an offense that can take advantage of what the defense gives us, as opposed to my earlier years here, when we were a ground-and-pound, run play-action team," Starks said. "This group is just balanced."

On the other side of the ball, some of the stars are still in their primes. Those include Troy Polamalu and AFC sack leader LaMarr Woodley. Changes in the secondary, besides Lewis, include improved versions of William Gay and Ryan Mundy and rookie Cortez Allen, 23, who did not look out of place against the Patriots.

Speaking of the rookie class, if somebody told you before the season that Allen, Marcus Gilbert, Chris Carter, Saunders and Cameron Heyward all would play significant minutes in Week 8 against the Patriots, you might have surmised that the Steelers were either 0-7 or in the midst of a blowout loss.

Forgive Sapp if he couldn't see this coming. He was partially right. Some of the Steelers are aging and slowing. But this is a better team than last year's.

And far from done.

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