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Rookie impact: The best of their best

Posted Jan 17, 2014

Steelers rookies started a combined 36 games in 2013, and here are the highlights of their performances.

The Steelers got a combined 36 starts out of the eight rookies on their roster at the conclusion of the season, appearances that suggested the Class of 2013 might just be getting started.

Following is a look at the most memorable/representative plays turned in by Steelers rookies in the just-completed campaign, and what those contributions might mean down the road:

LE’VEON BELL
The Steelers knew they’d found their every-down back before heading to Green Bay on Dec. 22. What they didn’t know was how their No. 2 pick would react upon losing a fumble.

Bell didn’t do that until the Green Bay game, when he dropped the ball at the Steelers’ 3-yard line in the third quarter with the Steelers leading, 17-14.

Upon getting the ball back the Steelers gave it to Bell again on their first offensive snap – a first-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 32-yard line after they’d fallen behind, 21-17. Bell responded with a 25-yard burst up the middle that included a leap over Green Bay safety Morgan Burnett.

It was a fitting exclamation point to Bell’s rookie season.

JARVIS JONES
This year’s No. 1 pick had a hand in putting the finishing touches on the first win of 2013 by helping to induce a game-sealing interception.

The Steelers were leading the Jets, 19-6, in the fourth quarter on Oct. 13, but with New York facing a first-and-10 at the Steelers’ 12-yard line, and because there still was 3:08 remaining the issue was still in doubt. That doubt was erased after Jones blasted quarterback Geno Smith upon his release of a pass that fluttered and ultimately was intercepted by linebacker Lawrence Timmons.

The goal for Jones is to be able to repeat such impact plays as necessary.

VINCE WILLIAMS

The No. 6b pick would up starting 11 games at inside linebacker. His most noticeable moment occurred in Green Bay.

The Packers had a first-and-goal at the Steelers’ 3-yard line following Bell’s aforementioned fumble. They tried running back Eddie Lacy only to find Williams in the way and wound up with a second-and-goal from the 5-yard line. Deterred from trying to run it across the goal line, the Packers took to the air, and two incompletions later, they were forced into a field goal attempt that was blocked by Steve McLendon.

It was the type of play Williams became capable of making as the season progressed and he gained more comfort with his knowledge of the defense and confidence in his ability to execute his assignment.

MARKUS WHEATON

The No. 3 pick endured an injury-plagued season that ended up producing as many special-teams tackles as receptions (six, which accounted for 61 yards worth of offense).

The biggest play he made in the passing game occurred on Nov. 17 against Detroit. The Steelers were leading, 17-10, and facing a first-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 20-yard line in the second quarter. Wheaton ran a crossing route and turned a 4-yard pass into a 21-yard gain by getting to the boundary and turning up the field after the catch.

It’s what he can do. The idea next season will be to do it much more frequently.

SHAMARKO THOMAS

In the case of the Steelers’ No. 4a pick it wasn’t so much a play that stood out as it was Thomas quickly becoming a sub-package regular on defense before being sidelined by a mid-season ankle injury.

Prior to getting hurt Thomas had established himself as a “pretty smart guy,” and as one who had been asked to do “quite a few things at different positions,” in the estimation of defensive backs coach Carnell Lake.

“Outstanding,” Lake assessed of Thomas’ progress prior to his injury. “If you’re getting on the field on the defensive unit as a rookie you’re doing something OK. He comes in early, leaves late. He’s becoming a true professional.”

In the regular season finale against Cleveland, Thomas appeared on the punt, punt return, kickoff, and kickoff return teams, as did Vince Williams and second-year cornerback Antwon Blake.

The rookies are off and running.

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