The Pittsburgh Steelers had a disappointing end to one of the best regular seasons in 2011. They only lost four games before the postseason, but fell to the Broncos in the first round of the playoffs.
Despite their early playoff exit, the Steelers should be one of the favorites to contend for a championship in 2012. Pittsburgh is returning a number of stars on both sides of the ball, and is consistently one of the better teams in the AFC.
The Ravens have become stiff competition for the Steelers, though, in the AFC North. Baltimore won the division in 2011, and some of the Steelers stars will have to play even better next year if they want to avoid another early playoff exit.
Here are five players who should shine for Pittsburgh in 2012:
Antonio Brown- Wide Receiver
Brown had one of the biggest breakout seasons in the NFL last year. After recording just 167 receiving yards in 2010, he had 1,108 yards in his second season.
The wide out came on as Hines Ward played out the last season of his career. Brown took over as the team's number two option, and almost played as well as Mike Wallace. Brown even has a chance to surpass Wallace as Pittsburgh's top target. Wallace has not participated in the Steelers OTAs, and is still waiting to sign a long-term deal.
Brown was also a breakout punt returner. He became the first player to ever receive and return over 1,000 yards in the same season. If Brown was able to make history in just his second year in the NFL, the sky is the limit for him in 2012.
Troy Polamalu- Safety
Polamalu has been in the NFL for nine years, but he's in the perfect position to have one of his best seasons. The safety doesn't usually got to OTAs, but decided to make an appearance this year.
He has been one of the league's premiere defenders since 2003, and hasn't showed many signs of slowing down. He registered 91 tackles in 2011, which is the second highest total of his career. Polamalu was named the sixth best player in the NFL in 2011, and could still be around there by the end of next season.
David DeCastro- Guard
The Steelers got one of the best players in the 2012 NFL Draft in Stanford's David DeCastro. The guard was a first-team All-American his last year in college, and is ready to become one of the better offensive linemen in the NFL.
He'll be thrust into the starting lineup as the team's right guard at the beginning of the season, and should give Ben Roethlisberger more protection than he's had in recent years. DeCastro played in a pro-style offense at the collegiate level, so his transition to the NFL should be a smooth one.
Pittsburgh needs a good pass blocker, and that is DeCastro's strength. He is the perfect fit for what the Steelers need on their offensive line.
Ben Roethlisberger- Quarterback
Roethlisberger is consistently one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and there's no reason why he shouldn't be successful in 2012. He was in the top 10 in passer rating, yards and completion percentage last season, and led the Steelers to another 12-win season in 2011.
Big Ben shows no signs of slowing down this upcoming season. He has two of the best wide receivers in the AFC in Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace. The Steelers did a poor job of protecting their quarterback last year, as he led the league with 40 sacks. However, Pittsburgh addressed its biggest issue in the draft.
The Steelers took offensive lineman David DeCastro and Mike Adams with their first two picks. They also took guard Kelvin Beachum with their final pick. If the Steelers can protect Roethlisberger, he should have an even better season in 2012.
Ryan Clark- Safety
Clark is part of possibly the best secondary in the NFL. He's been in the league since 2002, but he may have had his best year as a professional last season. Clark recorded a career high 100 tackles in 2011, and was a big part of the top rated pass defense in the league.
There's no reason to believe Clark won't have another outstanding year in 2012. He's only getting better with age, recording career highs in tackles each of the past four seasons.
With Polamalu and Clark in the secondary, Pittsburgh should have a top defensive unit next season.