It’s a bye week for the Steelers but we’re still here. At 5-2, the Steelers are close to the midpoint of the season. We’ve seen enough football now to know how has showed up for the season and who hasn’t. Seven games isn’t a huge sample size, but it’s enough to make some snap judgments.
Here’s five players who have showed up and played big roles so far in 2009. They are guys who might have been coming in under the radar or guys who just broke out from obscurity.
1. Keyaron Fox – LB
Fox was a special teams ace last year and one of Kevin Colbert’s best signings in recent years. He provided much need stability in the kick coverage game and was universally praised for that. But this season he has been on a whole different level. You can tell he is a smart football player because he’s jumped in and started at inside linebacker in only his second year as a Steeler and not missed a beat. He has more tackles than both Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley and has already surpassed his tackle total from last season. Fox is the type of depth player that great teams put to use and he has looked like a solid linebacker this year.
2. Brett Keisel – DE
2006 was Keisel’s first breakout year. He had 56 tackles and a remarkable 5.5 sacks, a rare number for a 3-4 DE, especially in the Steelers scheme. Since then, Keisel has been mediocre though. 2007 was a big disappointment for him, only registering 2 sacks despite playing in all 16 games. Last season he was injured. But after signing a contract extension in the offeseason, Keisel has been playing at the level we saw from him in 2006. The sack totals won’t jump out at you…he only has one so far. But he’s been making splash plays and is noticeable on most plays. He also has 26 tackles already. With Aaron Smith out, he’ll get an opportunity to really stand out the rest of the season and it looks like he’s ready to make the most of it.
3. Mike Wallace – WR
If you were like us, you mostly just glanced over the selection of Wallace in the third round of this spring’s NFL draft. Maybe it was the Sweed disaster or the up and down seasons of almost every rookie WR drafted in recent years. But we definitely weren’t expecting much, if anything, out of Wallace this season. We were wrong. He leads all rookies in receiving yards and has three catches over 40 yards. If the Steelers keep throwing the ball so much, he even has an outside chance of reaching 1,000 yards for the season! He should at least end up with around 800-850. The loss of Nate Washington was supposed to be a big issue for the Steelers this season, but Wallace has proven to be a valuable deep threat and 85 hasn’t been missed much, if at all. Big props to Colbert and Tomlin for this find.
4. Rashard Mendenhall – RB
I was wrong about Mendenhall. I thought he was headed nowhere after watching him in preseason this summer and fall. His vision was terrible and he had no burst whatsoever. After watching him struggle in preseason last year, get injured last season, and suck again in preseason, I thought he just didn’t have “it.” Running backs have a high performance standard for their rookie years thanks to guys like Matt Forte and Chris Johnson tearing it up and I was holding Mendenhall to that standard. I think it was fair. But it seems like Mendy just needed some more seasoning. After an early season preparation hiccup, Mendy has been fantastic. He’s averaging 5.4 yards per carry and is 15th in the league in rushing despite only getting 78 carries and being benched for an entire game. The fumbles are still a problem but that is an adjustment that most young players go through and there’s lots of time for this to be fixed.
5. Heath Miller – TE
We all knew how good Heath Miller was well before this season. The problem is that most average NFL fans didn’t. Miller is an extremely balanced TE and is just as good at blocking as he is at receiving. NFL fans have fallen in love with guys like Antonio Gates and Dallas Clark and I cringe every time that they are called TEs. They line up as slot receivers just as much as they line up in a three-point stance, Clark especially. But with the Steelers focusing more on passing the ball, Miller might finally be getting hus due. Big Money has more catches than any other TE in the game and has 4 TDs already. Miller’s best season in his career had him catching 48 balls. That was last year. He already has 40 catches through seven games. He has been absolutely amazing the entire season and if Miller keeps up this pace and doesn’t make the Pro Bowl something is seriously wrong with this league.
Who did we miss? Who else in on pace to have a breakout season in 2009?