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Steelers Notebook

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Emmanuel Sanders is quickly becoming an instrumental part of the team’s passing game. After a first-half of the season where he was a gameday scratch as many times as he caught a pass (four scratches, four receptions), Sanders has evolved into one of Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite targets.

In a seven-game stretch from Week 10 until the Thursday night game against Carolina, Sanders posted 23 receptions and 284 yards, numbers that are second only to Mike Wallace in that same stretch. Averaged out to a full 16-game slate, his totals wouldn’t be far off from Mike Wallace’s eye-opening rookie campaign in 2009: Sanders would have come up a bit short in the yards department but would have an edge of a dozen receptions. All in all, the future’s bright for Sanders in 2011 and beyond.
It’s never too early to look ahead, as the futures of a few of Pittsburgh’s young talents are still up in the air. Second-year cornerback Keenan Lewis has been a bust in his first two seasons after being drafted out of Oregon State in the third-round of the 2008 draft. His rookie season was marred by injuries and he has failed to see significant action in his second season. What’s worse is that, when he has been pressed into duty on special teams or as an injury sub in the secondary, he has failed to impress, making mental mistakes that have him closer to the team’s inactive list than a larger role in the defense. Given the team’s early terminations of LB Bruce Davis (a third-round pick in 2008) and Kraig Urbik (third-round, '09), Lewis could be on the hot seat if he doesn’t show the team something in the near future.
On the offensive side of the ball, 2008 fourth-round pick Tony Hills could also be on thin ice. Even with a seemingly un-ending list of offensive line injuries this season, Hills has been unable to push himself into a starting role and has been a healthy scratch for most of the season.  Fellow linemen Trai Essex, Doug Legursky, and Ramon Foster are all more versatile options for the line and you have to figure that Pittsburgh is going to add some youth to the group in next year’s draft. If that happens, Hills could be the odd man out.
One thing is for certain, the offensive line will have some depth for the future thanks to the injury bug that bit the team this season. If Hills does manage to stick in Pittsburgh, he’ll enter next season as one of eight linemen who saw action in 2010. With only Flozell Adams and Maurkice Pouncey making every contest this season, guys like Jonathan Scott, Ramon Foster, and Doug Legursky all started games. Chris Kemoeatu and the versatile Trai Essex provide some strength at the guard position. The team also has veteran tackles Max Starks and Willie Colon on the mend. All told, this offseason’s battle for roster spots could become quite heated, especially if the team decides to add some additional talent in the offseason.
Despite a multitude of defensive-line injuries, Pittsburgh’s run defense is playing at a near-historic level. The Steelers were allowing just 64.1 yards rushing per game to opposing teams going into the final week of the season, which is the third-best total for a team defense since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. Only the 2006 Minnesota Vikings (61.6 ypg) and the defensive juggernaut that was the 2000 Baltimore Ravens (60.6 ypg) gave up a lower average on the ground.
On the gadget front, Pittsburgh is still experimenting with a number of trick passing plays. Antwaan Randle El remains the focus of these experiments, though the Pittsburgh offense has toyed with the idea of letting one of the running backs toss the ball around. Mewelde Moore is the only back on the roster who has attempted a pass in the NFL (he completed a six-yard touchdown pass last season), but Rashard Mendenhall has a decent arm and could be in the mix to execute such a play.

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