Saturday, August 17, 2013

Projecting The Steelers Receiving Corps In 2013

photo courtesy of ESPN's David Todd (@DavidMTodd)

There's no doubt that today's NFL is pass oriented to say the least. To have payed any attention over the past nine or ten years is to have witnessed the ascent of the passing game. Passing records are falling, history is being rewritten and modern day quarterbacks are greatly eclipsing the production of their predecessors from as little as two decades ago.

The ratio of runs to passes has fallen over the past decade from approximately 45% to around 42.5% and, as proof of the proclivity of the pass, the offense that passed the most in 2012 ran the ball just over 33.5% of the time.

That fact isn't lost on the Pittsburgh Steelers by any means. They have one of the better tight ends in the NFL and a very good-to-great wide receiver corps. They have also have a two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback, and have drafted offensive linemen to help protect him.

But Heath Miller, the aforementioned tight end, won't be available to start the season. He is still recovering from a terrible knee injury suffered in week 16 last season. But the Steelers recently announced that they would be removing him from the Active PUP list before the season starts. Miller himself has said he doesn't quite know when he'll be ready, but he's "hoping sooner rather than later."

“I think in any rehab process, there are ups and downs,” said Miller, the Pro Bowl tight end who was the Steelers' leading receiver last season. “But I definitely think we've had more positives than negatives, and I feel good.” - http://tinyurl.com/m2pf4x4

The best educated guess is week six. The Steelers have a bye in week five after facing the Minnesota Vikings in London, so October 13 against the New York Jets is a very viable return date for him. If they left Miller on the Reserve PUP list to start the regular season, he wouldn't then be able to return until at least week seven.

With Matt Spaeth and David Johnson also both injured and returning at various points this season, the Steelers will start 2013 with pass-catching TE David Paulson as their No. 1 guy and recent signees Michael Palmer and Nathan Overbay in more of blocking roles. At least until Miller and Spaeth return. Also look for the Steelers, as If It Ain't Steel has written before, to use fullback Will Johnson in more passing situations. Gerry Dulac of rhe Pittsburgh Post-Gazette supports this by writing that they will not be signing anyone else. - http://tinyurl.com/kf8vjvc

The wide receivers that the Steelers have drafted in the last few years comprise a very talented, very potent and very fast unit that is ready to tax secondaries this season. Whether or not they nickel and dime them or take a pocketful of change at a time.

The key, though, isn't the passing game unto itself, it's how productive they are with those passes.

"Antonio Brown, I think, is going to one of the most feared receivers in the league this year," Plaxico Burress told the Associated Press. "And I'm going to do everything in my power to help him get to the level where he can be an elite receiver."

Now that he's on IR, Plax can't help on the field, but he can still mentor him. Nonetheless, the point here is that Brown is expected to do big things this season. He may not quite have the dearly departed Mike Wallace's speed, but deep touchdowns like the 58-yard score against the Baltimore Ravens in 2010 and the 60 yarder he had against the Cincinnati Bengals last year show he can stretch the field.

Keep in mind also that he missed three games after going down during the week nine win over the New York Giants with a high ankle sprain. If he hadn't missed that time, he would've been on pace for approximately 80 catches and over 960 yards - both numbers would have led the team.

Following AB is Emmanuel Sanders, the faster of the two young wideouts. He also has a little more polish to his game and can be interchanged on the outside and in the slot. He is a very good route runner and very good blocker. We used to refer to him as "the future Hines Ward." Let's just hope he stays in Black and Gold in order to have that come to fruition.

With Plax gone, the Steelers lone, true veteran receiver is Jerricho Cotchery. Cotch has great hands and knows how to get open. He's very good at using his body to fend off the defender so as to get the needed yards. His presence on the field, on the sidelines and in the locker room could be invaluable.

That value is exactly why we have to disagree with NFL.com's Jason La Canfora who says that he "could see the Steelers shopping Jerricho Cotchery, for instance, and finding a better market than they may have anticipated."

Neal Coolong of Behind The Steel Curtain contends, however, that La Canfora has a point, saying that the Steelers have "needs all across the roster and will have some awfully tough decisions to make. Perhaps trading Cotch would prevent the Steelers from losing a young prospect they believe could be a future star with time to develop; especially if they believe Sanders will leave in free agency following this season."

Among those "prospects" is Markus Wheaton, because it is Wheaton who can and will contribute significantly this season. In fact, according to Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor, he already "looks like a veteran."

"He's not playing like a rookie, he doesn't act like a rookie. He looks like a veteran,” Taylor said. “Of course he's going to make rookie mistakes because he's a rookie. But watching him over the course of weeks, the guys is smart, polished. I can't wait to see him during the season.” - http://tinyurl.com/mmdf2ff

Neither can we. Which is exactly why the Steelers shouldn't play (read: risk) him on special teams. Wheaton will still have to fight for playing time, but Cotch will push Wheaton in his first season. If he can stay consistent and focused, there’s no reason to think that Wheaton won’t make 35-40 catches in 2013. So, don't risk it, even more so considering those behind him.

Bringing up the rear in the fifth and possibly sixth positions are Justin Brown, Derek Moye, David Gilreath and Reggie Dunn. All have specific skills that they bring to the table and that could benefit the team. All can make their bones on special teams as well. Some more so than others.

The final roster's makeup is yet to be determined, but it could be speculated that the Steelers could keep four running backs (Bell, Redman, Stephens-Howling and Johnson), thereby allowing them to keep WRs (AB, Manny, Cotch, Wheaton and Brown 2.0, who has had a very good Training Camp), allowing them to hold the extra TE spot for Miller and Spaeth.

If they do work the numbers to open up an extra spot, it could just as easily be for an extra RB (Redman) for the purpose of safety, or a sixth WR spot (Dunn) for the extra special teams specialist.

And the next two preseason games will determine if that rings true or not.