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mesaSteeler
01-11-2009, 08:54 AM
Steelers' patience pays off for 2007 draft class
http://www.observer-reporter.com/OR/Story/1-11-Steelers-second-year-players
By F. Dale Lolley, Staff writer

dlolley@observer-reporter.com

PITTSBURGH - A year ago, the Steelers' rookie class was mostly an afterthought - players biding their time at the end of their first NFL season as the team staggered down the stretch and lost to Jacksonville in the first round of the AFC playoffs.

Times have changed dramatically this season. Linebackers Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley, cornerback William Gay, guard Darnell Stapleton and tight end Matt Spaeth have all started at least one game and been key components of a squad that's compiled a 12-4 record.

That's not all that unusual for players to take that kind of step forward in their second season with the Steelers. In fact, it's expected.

Not everyone comes into the league in their first season as linebacker Kendrell Bell did in 2001, or quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did in 2004, and immediately becomes a star. For most players, it takes time.

"I played nine snaps my whole rookie year and most of those were on special teams," said defensive end Aaron Smith, a starter since 2000 after being a fourth-round draft pick in 1999.

"It's hard. You're used to playing. You're used to being the star, one of the better players on the field all the time. Coming in and not knowing anything is hard. It's a tough adjustment. This defense is a lot of mental work. It's not an easy process, but it's a necessary process."

Timmons, the team's first draft pick in 2007, played sparingly as a rookie, seeing action mostly on special teams. He's started only two games this season but has played extensively in Pittsburgh's nickel package, making 71 tackles with five sacks and an interception.

Timmons' progression in 2008 was akin to the one safety Troy Polamalu made in 2004 after failing to start a game as a rookie. Polamalu started every game in his second season and recorded 97 tackles with five interceptions and a sack.

Polamalu praises the Steelers' patience in allowing rookies to learn what it takes to play in the NFL, rather than expecting immediate results.

"I think that's what's awesome about this system. You can't go get a big-name free agent and think that he's going to be awesome in this system," Polamalu said. "You've got to have guys who fit into the system and that's why you find success. That's what the Steelers have done a great job of doing, finding these young guys and having them grow up within the system. Their careers speak for themselves so far."

The increased playing time for Timmons and Woodley, who started 15 games this season, could be seen as keys to why the Steelers went from being a good defense in 2007 to one that led the league in fewest points, total yards and passing yards allowed in 2008.

Woodley was the lone new starter on defense, as he replaced Clark Haggans. Pittsburgh's second-round pick in 2007, Woodley had 111/2 sacks to go with his 78 tackles, one interception and four fumble recoveries.

Pittsburgh's defense had 36 sacks last season but increased that total to 51 in 2008, with the 161/2 added by Timmons and Woodley largely responsible for the improved production.

"Everybody has a role on this team and everybody has fulfilled that role," said Timmons, downplaying what he and Woodley have brought to the defense. "That's why we've been able to become a great defense."

But defensive players haven't been the only ones to step into larger roles in their second season. And it hasn't been the Steelers' draft class that has contributed.

Stapleton, surprisingly, made the team in 2007 after signing as an undrafted rookie out of Rutgers. His placement on the team's 53-man roster coming out of training camp was even more amazing considering he suffered a knee injury early in training camp and did not play in the preseason.

The Steelers, however, liked what they had seen of him to that point and kept the 6-3, 305-pounder on the roster all season - though he was never active on game days.

Stapleton has rewarded that patience the Steelers showed with him by making 12 starts at right guard after Kendall Simmons was lost for the season because of a torn Achilles tendon.

"Coach (Mike) Tomlin always preaches that second-year players have to step up and be prepared to contribute more to the team," Stapleton said. "That's not saying that your first year is a redshirt year, but there's not as much required. You play special teams and stuff like that.

"Your second year, you're more likely to be called on to step in and help the team because you know the system, you develop and you understand the ins and outs of the game a little bit better than your first year."

Smith said that process of learning what's expected can come quickly for some, but for others, it takes a little longer.

"Usually, it's in the spring when we come back, that's when the light switch usually comes on," he said. "They understand what they're doing and what's expected and they're able to do it now."

That's why there is nobody in the Steelers' locker room ready to write off this year's rookie class, which includes running back Rashard Mendenhall, wide receiver Limas Sweed, linebacker Bruce Davis and offensive tackle Tony Hills. None of the rookies has made a significant impact. Mendenhall, the first-round draft pick, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, Davis has been active for only one regular-season game and Hills has not dressed for a game.

"It's rare, but occasionally during the season you'll see a guy catch on that first year," Smith said.

"Over time, you have that conversation with guys that this is about a maturing process and it takes time. It's not too often that you have a LaMarr Woodley come in, even in his second year, and make the plays he's made. It takes time, but it pays off in the end."

GBMelBlount
01-11-2009, 09:13 AM
Another good piece by Lolley (our town sportswriter). If these guys step up as rookies, great, but you really need to be patient and give most of these guys a couple years to mature and learn to play pro ball imo.

markymarc
01-11-2009, 11:31 AM
Good article and thanks for sharing Mesa. Here's to Timmons, Woodley, Gay, Stapleton and Spaeth making some plays today to help this team win.

FSUBoo
01-11-2009, 03:00 PM
We've got good production from last years class. I can't wait to see how this years class develops and helps the offense.