When the 2010 draft arrived, the Pittsburgh Steelers had a deep, but old, wide receiver corps.
After trading away Santonio Holmes for a fifth-round pick and signing Antwaan Randle-El and Arnaz Battle as free agents, the Steelers had a speedy young receiver (Mike Wallace), an impressive, aging veteran (Hines Ward), two veteran backups in Randle-El and Battle and a maddening young receiver who combined deep speed, height and stone hands (Limas Sweed).
Little did most Steelers fans know at the time that the receiver corps would look entirely different come playoff time.
When Pittsburgh beat the Ravens on Saturday, it was in large part because rookie Antonio Brown beat Lardarius Webb deep for 58 yards on third-and-19. Brown's three catches for 74 yards led all receivers on Saturday. Pittsburgh's second-leading receiver was another rookie, Emmanuel Sanders.
If the Steelers do beat the Jets on Sunday, it will be in part because of the emergence of the team's two rookie receivers. After playing a very small role in the first half of the season, the two rookies have become integral parts of the passing attack in the second half of the season. For the first half of the season, the two battled for one job. Every week Mike Tomlin held an open competition during practice; whomever played better got to dress on Sunday, mostly to return kicks.
|PAST SIX WEEKS STATS|
|Antwaan Randle El||5||48|
|PRORATED SEASON STATS|
|Antwaan Randle El||13||128|
By then, Sanders had moved ahead of Randle El to become the team's No. 3 receiver. Tomlin's decision to add Brown to the active roster as well (where he quickly moved ahead of Randle El as well) opened up some new opportunities for Ben Roethlisberger. Before Sanders and Brown were getting regular time, Mike Wallace was the only Steelers receiver with the speed to generate separation against man coverage. But the addition of Sanders and Brown now gives Pittsburgh three wide receivers who have the speed to give defenses problems.
For the long-term, the emergence of Sanders and Brown has helped set the Steelers' lineup for the future. Sanders appears to be the logical heir apparent to Ward, while Brown could give the team a significant threat in the slot. If the Steelers can get their offensive line problems fixed, the possibilities of having Roethlisberger throwing to Wallace, Sanders, Brown, Ward and tight end Heath Miller should make the Steelers' offensive even better next year.
If you look over the past six games, Sanders and Brown have become nearly as productive as Ward. If you prorate the stats of the past six games over a full season, Sanders and Brown would be on pace for more than 575 yards receiving apiece. Over that stretch, the Steelers have faced the Ravens twice and the Jets, so it's not like they've piled up the stats by just facing weak defenses.
Brown and Sanders will be facing one of their biggest tests on Sunday. But they passed their first playoff test in impressive fashion last week; now the Jets will be trying to make sure they don't do it again.
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