- Matt Williamson, ESPN.com
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Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning are household names, but they aren't the only reasons for the success of Pittsburgh and New York. Here are three players from each team who are under the radar but a big reason the Steelers and Giants are Super Bowl contenders.
LaMarr Woodley, OLB
Woodley hasn't received national recognition, but he soon will. He has been very quick to adapt to the coverage aspects of playing outside linebacker in the Steelers' 3-4 scheme, but his value lies in his ability to get after passers. He is short for this position, but he's strong. He can get under the pads of much larger offensive tackles and drive them backward with his strength. He also has long arms and the base to keep tackles and tight ends off his body in the run game. Woodley is on the verge of stardom.
Lawrence Timmons, ILB
Last year's first-round pick is coming into his own. An incredibly explosive athlete who is the total package physically, Timmons is slowly taking over as the weak inside linebacker from Larry Foote. Timmons does his finest work on passing downs, where he is becoming like a bigger version of S Troy Polamalu.
Matt Spaeth, TE
Spaeth is 6-foot-7, with the bulk to handle defensive ends in the run game. Pittsburgh uses an awful lot of double-tight end sets, and this second-year player is often overshadowed by Heath Miller. Spaeth is particularly adept near the goal line. With the wealth of weapons in Pittsburgh, he often finds very advantageous coverage situations.
Derrick Ward, RB
Brandon Jacobs is the bulldozer and Ahmad Bradshaw is the Corvette, but Ward blends their two skills quite adeptly. He has good speed, vision and run instincts, as evidenced by his 7.2-yards-per carry average. He might not get on "SportsCenter" highlights as much as Jacobs and Bradshaw, but he is a big key to the league's best running game.
Steve Smith, WR
Although he's just in his second year, Smith is a solid receiver and becoming someone Manning trusts. His hands are solid. His routes are solid. He is solid in the finer and often overlooked aspects of playing wide receiver, such as setting up defenders, changing speeds, blocking, etc. Get my drift here? Solid. Manning doesn't hesitate to look for Smith in crucial situations because he's so wait for it solid.
Domenik Hixon, WR/RS
Hixon is an excellent return man with the strength to break tackles and the speed to run away from coverage teams. Speaking of coverage teams, Hixon also contributes in this department as well. Plus, he is becoming a more-than-serviceable wideout. Hixon is tough, smart and extremely hardworking. Every team in the league needs players like him in order to be successful.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.
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