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Stepping Up

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Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and James Farrior are just three of several veteran players that the Steelers will be without this coming season. In their absence, young players like Isaac Redman will need to step up and take on more important roles. PSR identifies three to watch.

When Rashard Mendenhall suffered a knee injury during the first quarter of the 2011 season finale against the Cleveland Browns, the Steelers looked to Isaac Redman to take his place. He entered the game and rushed for 92 yards on 19 carries. Redman started the next game, a playoff game loss to the Denver Broncos, and rushed for 121 yards on 17 carries. In those two games, Redman averaged 4.8 and 7.1 yards per carry respectively. With his previous back-up and goal line experience in the backfield, combined with these two performances, Redman has shown he is worthy of a chance to play a much bigger role. Mendenhall is expected to begin the 2012 season on the physically unable to perform list, and the starting running back job will be Redman’s to lose, at least until Mendenhall is healthy – if not longer.

Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2009, Redman made his debut for the Steelers in 2010 as the goal-line back. His production has increased over the last two seasons, especially when Mendenhall battled injuries in 2011. Redman more than doubled his carries from 52 to 110 between 2010 and 2011, and has performed consistently.

Redman does not possess the same speed as Mendenhall, but does have an arsenal of strong, physical talents to move the chains. Redman is more of a north-to-south runner than Mendenhall, and is much more capable of jamming the ball up the middle. He is a consistent blocker in the backfield and has held his own against the fierce arsenal of pass rushers in the rest of the AFC North. A breakout season for Redman is not out of the question.

Stevenson Sylvester – LB
photo by Chuck LeClaireWith the release of defensive team captain James Farrior, the Steelers will need to fill the void with someone capable of the same stellar defensive play Farrior provided for the last 10 years with the team. Stevenson Sylvester is one of a few linebackers the Steelers have on their depth chart, but figures to be the one most capable of taking on such an important role in the long term. Despite receiving limited playing time over the last two seasons, Sylvester could eventually challenge veteran Larry Foote for the starting role in 2012.

Sylvester has spent the last two seasons learning several of the Steelers linebacker positions from a core of the best linebackers in the NFL. He has the athleticism and talent to step into a big role, and expectations for him are very high.

Sylvester has received the bulk of his NFL playing time on special teams, and has been a monster for the Steelers on kickoffs.

The biggest advantage for Sylvester, despite his athleticism, may be his work ethic. Sylvester’s teammates have repeatedly said he’s a hard worker and refuses to back down from any challenge. Look for Sylvester to slowly earn his way onto the field more and more in 2012, and don’t be surprised to see him breakthrough to a starting role at some point.

Cortez Allen – DB
With William Gay signing a new contract with the Arizona Cardinals, the Steelers need a new starter at cornerback. Cortez Allen is one of many options to fill the void. The Steelers drafted Allen in the fourth round two years ago out of the Citadel. He was raw, but was considered a steal at 6-1 with superior athleticism.

photo by Chuck LeClaireAllen played well when given the chance to see playing time in the middle of the season against the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens last year, when he found himself matched up against Rob Gronkowski and Torrey Smith – and acquitted himself well. Since then, Allen worked his way up the depth chart to receive considerable playing time.

Although Allen hasn’t specifically proved anything just yet, his raw potential is considerably high. He’s got the speed, size and skills needed to be a legitimate shut-down corner. He’ll compete with Keenan Lewis, Curtis Brown and possibly new draft pick Terrence Frederick for the open cornerback spot.

Neil Walker’s contract expires after the 2016 season. The Pirates second baseman is due for a big raise in arbitration this offseason, likely to $10 million.
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