PITTSBURGH -- The kickoff that Emmanuel Sanders nearly returned for a touchdown last Sunday was roughly a month in the making.
Sanders had approached Mike Tomlin about returning kickoffs to help the Steelers snap out of their early-season funk, and he did more than just lobby the seventh-year coach for the extra duties.
"I took the initiative to go back there and practice it and show him that I'm serious about returning kicks," Sanders said, "and he finally called my number against Baltimore."
Sanders remains serious about returning kicks but he is not sure how much of an opportunity he will get Sunday even if Tomlin green-lights his request.
Oakland's Sebastian Janikowski still has a bionic left leg 14 years into his NFL career, and when he is not booming kickoffs out of the end zone the Raiders aren't yielding much on returns.
They lead the NFL in kickoff coverage (19.0 yards per return), and that will only add to the Steelers' difficulty of breaking a big play on special teams against the Raiders.
Sanders has returned just six kickoffs the previous two seasons, and he understands why Tomlin might not be willing to go beyond using him as a situational returner.
"You don't really want your starters back there during special teams because it's a huge risk," Sanders said. "If one of those guys gets hurt on a special-teams play it's alright now we have to go with our third string. I think we have good third-string guys here but still you don't want your starters to be out."
The Steelers may not need to rely on special teams so much if the offense starts scoring touchdowns, and it appears to be on the cusp of breaking out.
Or at least scoring more than one touchdown a game.
Sanders said he "loved the balance" that the Steelers displayed in their 19-16 win last Sunday and thinks their 141 rushing yards against the Ravens portends good things for the offense.
"When I saw Le'Veon [Bell] running the ball, it felt like the old Steelers," Sanders said. "When I got here my rookie year, even my second year we were running the ball at will. We knew that we were getting five yards no matter what run we ran."
Play-action to Bell set up Sanders' 55-yard touchdown catch against the Jets two weeks ago.
"You have to have a balanced attack because we're not a spread offense team. So when the run game is on point it opens up the passing game," Sanders said. "Last game we didn't take any shots down the field but hopefully as the offense continues to grow we can potentially take shots down the field."