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|Pittsburgh "pet projects," cornerback William Gay (left) and receiver Limas Sweed, are ready to contribute. |
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
PITTSBURGH -- Even in the midst of last season's Super Bowl run, the Steelers quietly had their sights set on developing younger talent for next year and beyond.
Consider them Pittsburgh's "pet projects" for the future.
Now, cornerback William Gay and receiver Limas Sweed -- players with limited experience -- are expected to play much larger roles in 2009. They both appear ready to immediately contribute because behind the scenes Pittsburgh's coaching staff worked constantly with Gay and Sweed and found a way to work them into games even if it came with growing pains.
Sweed's struggles were evident, because they came late in the season during playoff games.
Then a rookie, Sweed had drops and lapses in concentration. Yet this summer he's been a standout in training camp. He carried that momentum into Pittsburgh's 20-10 preseason win over Arizona by recording two catches for 56 yards, including an impressive 45-yard reception.
Sweed credits head coach Mike Tomlin and the rest of Pittsburgh's coaching staff for never getting down on him.
"The coaches are always positive, even back when I was struggling," said Sweed, who likely will be Pittsburgh's No. 3 receiver this season. "It's not to say I'm perfect now. But I'm doing better than what I did as a rookie when I was trying to learn the plays and catching up.
"They've been patient with me and a big part of football is patience."
Tomlin has watched Sweed improve and make plays all offseason and expects that to show in games this year.
"Really, it's what we expect from him," Tomlin said. "We're not going to be pleasantly surprised by production from that young man or any of them for that matter. There's a standard of expectation that we have and we expect them to exceed it. I thought (Sweed) did a pretty good job."
As a fulltime starter, Gay faces even more pressure than Sweed. The third-year pro has just four starts in 32 career games for Pittsburgh.
Against the Cardinals in the preseason opener, veteran quarterback Kurt Warner quickly went after Gay. His first throw was an incompletion to receiver Anquan Boldin, where Gay had solid coverage. Three more pass attempts in Gay's direction followed in just two drives before starters from both teams were pulled after the first quarter.
Pittsburgh's top cornerback, Ike Taylor, barely broke a sweat while Gay saw a little bit of everything. Opponents are trying to figure out if Gay is the weak link in Pittsburgh's top-rated defense.
"It's just something that you know is going to happen as a new corner," Gay said. "They have to test you and see if you can handle it, and that's what I'm looking forward to for the whole season."
Gay said his approach this year is to "always think the ball is coming to you." Based on the first preseason game, that's probably a smart way to look at it.
Ironically, last week Gay also ran into the player he's replacing this year, Bryant McFadden. The fifth-year cornerback signed with Arizona as a free agent this offseason. The Steelers didn't make much of a push to keep McFadden because they felt confident Gay was ready to take the next step.
Both cornerbacks are now key defensive cogs for teams trying to get back to the Super Bowl.
"We trained over the summer, so it was kind of cool and it was good to see him again," Gay said. "We both wished each other the best of luck as we continue on with our careers."
While a majority of Steelers took time off to enjoy their Super Bowl win, Sweed went about his business differently. His inconsistent rookie year motivated Sweed to get back to work quickly.
Pittsburgh won its record sixth Super Bowl title Feb. 1. By mid-February Sweed said he was already running routes and training independently for the season.
"I've been working early when nobody ever knew, and I really didn't want anybody to know," Sweed said. "Right after the Super Bowl, I remember my mom asking me if I was going to take a break. And I told her no because I knew there was a lot of work that I needed to do to catch up. I felt like I was behind."
The early returns show Sweed is getting up to speed. He's making plays consistently in training camp and his preseason debut last week opened eyes.
Sweed also said his confidence is where it needs to be this season, and that's a good thing for Pittsburgh.
"It's cool, but I'm not going to ride the emotional rollercoaster," Sweed said. "I'm going to keep an even keel, go back to practice, work hard and keep progressing."