Young receivers money for Steelers
January, 17, 2011
By James Walker | ESPN.com
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesAntonio Brown, left, and Emmanuel Sanders have made an impact for the Steelers as rookies.PITTSBURGH -- Mike Wallace has a nickname for Steelers teammate and rookie receiver Antonio Brown.
"You saw him with the game on the line; you saw 'Young Money,'" a jubilant Wallace said after Pittsburgh's 31-24 divisional playoff win over the Baltimore Ravens.
The "Young Money" moniker is fitting. Brown, 22, is young and he was certainly money in Pittsburgh's first playoff victory of the season. The last person anyone in Heinz Field -- including Baltimore -- expected to make the biggest play of the game was Brown, a relative unknown and former sixth-round draft pick.
But on third-and-19, Brown zipped past Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb and made an incredible 58-yard reception with 2:07 remaining in the game. Brown's catch set up the game-winning touchdown four plays later, helping the Steelers advance to the AFC Championship Game, where they will host the New York Jets on Sunday.
In a rivalry involving teams that know each other very well, the element of surprise turned out to be the difference. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went to offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and came up with the idea to send Brown deep while most of the attention was on other receivers like Wallace and Hines Ward. Brown received little playing time during the regular season.
"That speaks volumes for [Brown] to be ready then," Roethlisberger said. "He usually gets short routes and he's only in for a handful of them. He stepped up big when his number was called and he made a play."
"It was a great play at the right time, at the right moment," said Brown, who also added 101 yards against Baltimore on punt and kickoff returns.
The Steelers have hit big on drafting receivers the past two years. Wallace, who fell to the third round in 2009, had a breakout season, recording 60 receptions for 1,257 yards and 10 touchdowns. Including playoffs, Brown has 19 receptions for 242 yards, and third-rounder Emmanuel Sanders has 32 receptions for 430 yards and two touchdowns.
Sanders had four catches for 54 yards against the Ravens. There were questions during the bye week about whether Pittsburgh's two rookie receivers would be ready for the playoff atmosphere, and they combined for seven catches for 129 yards.
"We knew the rookies had to step up," Sanders said. "Me and Antonio, we worked hard all this week because we knew what was at stake, and to see him catch the game-winning [pass] was a blessing. I'm so proud of [him]."
Sanders and Brown have been pleasant surprises for Pittsburgh (13-4). Outside of returning kicks, not much was expected from either rookie as mid-round draft picks.
But you could see right away in training camp that both were extremely competitive. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin noticed, and would often pit them against each other and let them battle for practice reps against Pittsburgh's vaunted first-team defense.
By midseason, Sanders came along a little faster and was eventually moved into the third receiver role in place of veteran Antwaan Randle El. Now Brown has caught up and is making plays as the Steelers' No. 4 receiver.
Both were standouts in college. Brown had an extremely productive career Central Michigan. He had 110 catches for 1,198 yards and nine touchdowns as a junior and declared for the NFL draft. But Brown's lack of size (5-10) and small-school status were reasons few scouts took notice. The Steelers selected him in the sixth round, No. 195 overall.
Sanders joins Wallace as receivers taken by Pittsburgh in the third round (No. 82 overall) for two straight years. The Steelers also liked Sanders' production, as he caught 98 passes for 1,339 yards and seven touchdowns at Southern Methodist University. Making plays is nothing new to these receivers, because they had done it throughout their college careers.
Solid play from Sanders and Brown will be needed again for Pittsburgh to continue to make a Super Bowl run. Wallace, Ward and tight end Heath Miller will get most of the coverage from the Jets this week, which means Sanders and Brown could get some opportunities.
"I don't even second-guess when I drop back and throw. Those guys make plays," Roethlisberger said of his two rookie receivers. "The stage isn't too big for them. I'm really proud of the way they play."