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Ward, Pouncey have made immediate impressions

October 28, 2010
By BRENT SOBLESKI

Very little has connected Cleveland and Pittsburgh since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999.

A once long-standing and competitive rivalry has gone by the wayside. Yet, the teams do share one thing in common this season.

Both possess unheralded rookies deserving of praise through their efforts during the early portion of the 2010 season.

T.J. Ward and Maurkice Pouncey are not and will not be front runners for rookies of the year for either side of the football, but they should be.

It is often said an NFL draft class cannot be properly evaluated until three or four years have passed. The axiom never precludes pundits from immediately responding to each and every pick made on draft day.

Case in point - after Ward was selected 38th overall in the second round by Cleveland, skeptics immediately blasted the selection.

"I thought he was more of a third-, fourth- or fifth-round pick," ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper stated after the selection

Just after the draft, he continued, "Cleveland clearly liked T.J. Ward, but could have gotten him later than No. 38,"

Even Ward himself was somewhat flummoxed.

"I'm kind of surprised I went this high, but on my visit I had a good talk with coach (Eric) Mangini and coach (Mike) Holmgren. If I had to pick one team that was going to draft me, I'd pick the Browns."

Despite being branded as a dreaded "reach" by multiple outlets, Ward's early returns for his new team have been exceptional. Cleveland's starting safety is tied for eighth in the league with 60 total tackles. His peer, with the same amount of tackles, is Baltimore Raven, and future Hall of Famer, Ray Lewis.

Ward is one of two safeties ranked in the top ten, while the group is dominated by linebackers.

The next rookie down the list is Oakland's Rolando McClain. McClain, a recent top 10 overall selection, has almost half the amount of tackles (35).

The statistics do not account for the impact Ward has pressed upon his new squad.

While watching Browns' games, one can hear fans often muttering "who was that?" after another crunching blow. The answer is always Ward. The safety is setting the tone along the backline.

Two weeks ago, the rookie was fined $15,000 for what was a deemed an illegal hit in the endzone against Cincinnati's Jordan Shipley.

It may have made him lighter in the wallet, but teams and their receivers are now wary of his presence. Ironically, Ward's hit landed a week earlier than the NFL's latest crackdown when the Browns were the recipient of crushing blows.

Last weekend against the prolific New Orleans' offense, Ward goaded Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Drew Brees into multiple bad throws. The rookie was able to defend at least two passes and nearly made the play a couple more times.

After Cleveland's prerequisite bye week, it hosts the New England Patriots on Nov. 7.

Ward will look to duplicate his latest effort against another of the game's great signal callers, Tom Brady.

As games commence, Browns' general manager Tom Heckert was the lone voice many should have listened to on draft day, "He's a super, tough kid, makes a lot of plays in the run game. We think he can cover. We worked him out. Good athletic ability, but just a super tough kid".

Early contenders for Defensive Rookie of the Year are Detroit's Ndamukong Suh, who has been a handful for any opposing offenses, and Seattle's Earl Thomas, who is second in the league with four interceptions.

Meanwhile, St. Louis' Sam Bradford, this year's No. 1 overall selection and the leader of a resurgent Rams' roster, may already have a vice grip as the upcoming offensive rookie of the year.

The play of Pittsburgh's latest among a historic line of centers, Maurkice Pouncey, deserves much-needed attention after stepping in immediately and providing a rock at the pivot.

Pittsburgh had not drafted a center in the first round since 1941. The lineage at the position includes Ray Mansfield, Mike Webster, Dermotti Dawson and Jeff Hartings. Those four starters established an unbroken chain at the position for the Steelers from 1964 until 2006.

It is never a glamorous selection choosing an interior offensive lineman in the first round of the NFL draft, but it was the right one for Pittsburgh at the time after choosing Pouncey 18th overall.

Pouncey became the highest drafted center since 1999, when the Patriots chose Damien Woody 17th overall.

"He was that good," Pittsburgh General Manager Kevin Colbert commented after the selection. "It really has nothing to do with the position. He was just that good. It was pretty evident early on when we started to evaluate this kid."

His selection, unlike Ward's, was not much of a surprise.

"Well, I don't think there was any big secret or surprise, because I think that every mock draft that I saw had us picking Maurkice Pouncey," Colbert continued.

Initially, coach Mike Tomlin had planned Pouncey would play guard and eventually move to center. The plan did not come to fruition as Pouncey slid into the center spot almost immediately and has started every game in the middle this season.

The Steelers have gotten out to an impressive early start with a 5-1 record. Much of this has to do with their defense and the ability to grind out the tough yards via the ground attack.

During quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's four-game suspension, the offensive line led by Pouncey was able to pave the way as running back Rashard Mendenhall averaged nearly 103 yards per game.

Roethlisberger has been one of the most sacked quarterbacks in the NFL during the past few seasons. Pouncey's presence only helps to lessen the load.

Left tackle bears the responsibility of protecting a franchise quarterback's blindside, but center is next in line as the most valuable position along the offensive line. A pivot is expected to make all of the line calls and set the tone. The greatest asset Pouncey has shown is his intelligence shouldering those calls from the onset. It makes his play even more valuable as the Steelers running game, and now their passing game, flourish.

The rookie has achieved both of these early season goals while facing a litany of quality, yet generally unknown, interior defenders such as Tony Brown (Tennessee), Gerald McCoy (Tampa Bay), Kelly Gregg (Baltimore), Ahtyba Rubin (Cleveland), and Randy Starks (Miami.)

Pittsburgh will take its turn traveling to the Big Easy this weekend. The Saints will test Pouncey's mettle as their defense, orchestrated by coordinator Gregg Williams, blitzes as often as any team in the league.

It is clear, whether a follower of Cleveland, Pittsburgh, or the NFL in general, Ward and Pouncey have earned immediate respect and should enter every conversation as potential rookies of the year.

 
 

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