While the Steelers have two Pro Bowlers at the WR position and #1 and #1a targets in Antonio Brown (Pro Bowl KR) and Mike Wallace, the depth behind both guys is a bit sparse. Future Hall of Famer Hines Ward has retired, and Jerricho Cotchery is still testing the Free Agency waters and could be inclined to go elsewhere if the price for his services exceed whatever the cash-strapped Steelers are willing to spend. Ultimately, Pittsburgh will be in need of a solid slot WR in 2012 and beyond, and hopefully for the Steelers it is Emmanuel Sanders that can assume that role in 2012 and beyond.
As I stated before, Pittsburgh has become suddenly thin in terms of guys on their roster as effective #3 and #4 WR’s. Sure, Brown and Wallace are great options for Big Ben to have at the top of the depth chart, and many teams in the N.F.L. envy Pittsburgh’s potent One-Two Punch. Yet when the Steelers need to spread the field, or the Offense must look for production from others at the Wide Receiver position, the only guy on the roster with any experience is Sanders who actually had a nice start to his career with Pittsburgh and must find a way to step up this season.
Emerging at around mid-season in 2010, Sanders performed well during his Rookie year. After performing well on Kickoff Return duties, Sanders came on strong and made 28 Catches for 376 Yards and 2 TD’s and established himself as a solid #3 target for Roethlisberger. Unfortunately for Sanders, the injury-bug has hit him, and hit him hard over his first two seasons. Knee and foot ailments have caused Emmanuel to miss 8 games in the 2010 and 2011 regular seasons. To make matters worse, Sanders has been prevented from moving up the depth chart despite Ward leaving and Cotchery possibly going elsewhere, because of Antonio Brown emerging as a star-in-the-making in Pittsburgh. Luckily for Sanders, a good performance in 2012 can ultimately solidify a spot on the roster for him, but most importantly it will allow the Steelers to not put themselves in the market for a guy to work the slot (T.Y. Hilton of Florida International met with the club recently) in the coming seasons if Sanders does not stay healthy.
One thing working (non-health related) in Sanders’ favor to contribute at a higher level this season is the fact that he has the advantage of playing with terrific pass-catchers like Brown and Wallace. Both have the ability to stretch a Defense vertically and horizontally and create matchup nightmares. Furthermore, both will undoubtedly be the focus of the opponent’s plans to stop Pittsburgh’s passing attack in 2012 and beyond. The simple fact that both Wallace and Brown can scare Defenses will give Sanders a chance to be able to do what he does best and contribute on a consistent basis: work the middle of the field and in the slot.
Like a Davone Bess of the Dolphins (another Slot WR from June Jones’ Run N’ Shoot), Sanders is most effective when he displays his great ability to run-routes and get open in traffic. While he might not be the raw athlete like Antonio Brown or possess the speed of Mike Wallace, the 5’11” 186 lb. Sanders knows how to play in the slot from a technical perspective and be open for the ball when it comes his way. Having Sanders in the game allows Ben a nice and reliable option to go to in 3rd and 3-7 situations and he needs to pick up the 1st Down if he decides not to target Brown, Wallace, or even Heath Miller. Moreover, if new Offensive Coordinator Tod Haley decides to spread the Defense out in their Base sets, Sanders will be a matchup nightmare in the middle of the field with Miller, and could also get a decent amount of work in the Red Zone as well.
As likely the undisputed #3 guy entering Training Camp, Sanders will hopefully have every opportunity provided for him to succeed. Unlike Limas Sweed though, Sanders has flashed potential and done well when given the opportunities. It’s a shame to see a player like Sanders lose chances to seize chances because of injuries, but that’s the N.F.L.. If you can’t get on the field, you can’t play and you get replaced. Still, with an entire offseason to recover from his ailments, and Ward (and possibly Cotchery) not standing in his way, Sanders will be counted on to step-up this season. In the event he stays healthy, Sanders has displayed the ability to be an effective option in 3 Wide 1 Tight sets, he has done a nice job returning Kickoffs, and can ultimately become a viable option as a safety-valve for Big Ben. While the opposition will have their hands full with Brown and Wallace, they will be quick to respect a player like Sanders after he starts beating single coverage and giving Ben a terrific WR target in the middle of the field with Heath Miller as well.
It ultimately comes down to Sanders being able to stay healthy enough to contribute in the future. There is no doubt that Sanders can play at the highest level and he has proved himself over his limited career thus far. Who knows though? If Wallace bolts after this season, and Sanders plays well and stays healthy, he could be the #2 WR behind Brown when both are RFA’s entering the 2013 campaign. A good showing this season could ultimately mean an extended career with the Steelers for Sanders. So let’s cross our fingers for Emmanuel stay in good health, keep developing as a player, and make Defenses pay when Wallace and Brown gather too much attention from the opposition in the future.
Stats Provided By: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/