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mesaSteeler
12-19-2010, 12:14 AM
Cook: Rooney II, rookies key factors
Sunday, December 19, 2010
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10353/1111704-66.stm

The Steelers are 10-3 and pushing hard toward the AFC North Division championship. Many people need to stand up and take a bow: Mike Tomlin. Ben Roethlisberger. Rashard Mendenhall. Mike Wallace. Art Rooney II. James Harrison. LaMarr Woodley. Troy Polamalu ...

Wait a minute.

Art Rooney II?

"I'm not taking any credit for it," he said the other day.

The humility was pure Rooney, but the man really does deserve your applause. You might remember it was Rooney who told the Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette after last season that the Steelers needed to get more production from their young players -- and get it sooner rather than later. I'm thinking there's nothing quite like a firm nudge from the boss to start things moving.

Tomlin and director of football operations Kevin Colbert did their part in April by putting together a strong draft class. From No. 1 pick Maurkice Pouncey to No. 6 pick Anthony Brown, five rookies have made significant contributions to that terrific record. It's hard to say the 2010 draft class will turn out to be the Steelers' best class of the decade; the '07 class had Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, William Gay, Matt Spaeth and Daniel Sepulveda. But it has provided the most immediate results of any class since '04, when Roethlisberger took over for injured quarterback Tommy Maddox in the second game and led the team to a 15-1 record and the AFC championship game, maybe even since '01 when Kendrell Bell and Casey Hampton started as rookies.

It all starts with Pouncey, who has been the center from day one. "Guys like him don't come around very often," Rooney said. Pouncey is the best and most durable player on an offensive line that has been sabotaged by injuries and has had two left tackles, two left guards and three right guards as starters. He should be the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. There's no way that happens -- St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford probably will win -- but that doesn't mean Pouncey isn't the best rookie in the league. He is.

Throw in the two wide receivers -- Brown and Emmanuel Sanders --who have eased the pain from the April trade of Santonio Holmes, who will be back at Heinz Field today with the New York Jets. Brown made maybe the biggest play of the season, returning the opening kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown against the Tennessee Titans Sept. 19 to lead a 19-11 win in a game that convinced the Steelers this could be a special year. "An electric player," Wallace called him. "Whenever he gets the ball, everyone should come to their feet because he can go for a touchdown on any play." Sanders also has been huge on the special teams, setting up the winning field goal against the Miami Dolphins with a 48-yard kickoff return, forcing a fumble on the opening kickoff in the first game against the Cincinnati Bengals and making a tackle at the Baltimore Ravens' 18 on a kickoff late in the Steelers' 13-10 win. "That [tackle] was as big of a play as he has delivered for us," Tomlin gushed.

Then, there are linebackers Jason Worilds and Stevenson Sylvester. Worilds has 15 special-teams tackles and recovered the fumble on that kickoff in Cincinnati. He also filled in for injured Woodley against the Dolphins and had four quarterback hurries, including one on the Dolphins' final play. Sylvester has nine specials-team tackles and forced a fumble in Tennessee on the kickoff after Brown's touchdown return.

"They're playing pretty well, don't you think?" Rooney asked of his rookies.

Yes, I think.

I also think Tomlin and his staff have done a nice job coaching 'em up. I know Rooney thinks the same.

And how about the contributions from the second-year guys? Wallace has been better than last season when he was awfully good. Santonio Who? Isaac Redman made the big play to beat the Ravens, turning a simple hot route into a 9-yard touchdown by breaking two tackles. Ramon Foster has started the past four games at right guard. Ziggy Hood has done a nice job at defensive end for seven games filling in for injured Aaron Smith. David Johnson, as a tight end/fullback, threw the block on Atlanta Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson that cleared the way for Mendenhall's 50-yard overtime touchdown run on the Steelers' staple play, 22 Double, in the opening game.

Rooney wanted more from the young guys? He's gotten it. And here's the best part: It's happened sooner rather than later.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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