View Full Version : Young receivers step into spotlight

11-22-2010, 06:03 AM
Young receivers step into spotlight
By John Harris
Monday, November 22, 2010

A wise man once said that speed kills.

I can't recall who said it, but it sure wasn't Steelers coach Mike Tomlin prior to yesterday's game against Oakland.

Tomlin saw the light -- rather, a need -- when he relented and finally permitted rookie wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown to suit up in the same game and turned them loose on the Raiders.

"We had an opportunity to put a hat on both of them today," Tomlin said.

"They are talented young men."

Make that fast and talented young men.

Sanders caught two passes for 35 yards, including a lunging 22-yard touchdown grab in the second quarter.

And Brown scared the heck out of Oakland coach Tom Cable -- along with the rest of the NFL, for that matter.

In his first NFL game, against Tennessee, Brown had an 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown the first time he touched the ball. Against the Raiders, he returned a punt 67 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter, only to have it called back because of a holding penalty on a record-setting day when the officials were apparently paid for how many times they tossed their yellow flags.

Later in the quarter, Brown made a gutsy 21-yard reception across the middle that set up Ben Roethlisberger's 16-yard touchdown scramble.

The second quarter belonged to the Steelers, who outscored the Raiders, 21-0, en route to a 35-3 rout at Heinz Field.

It also belonged to the Steelers' kid receivers, who are growing up.

"I was extremely happy," Sanders said. "It felt good. Pregame, we got to work out together. First time in the regular season."

A few lockers away, Brown was asked about returning a kickoff the first time he touched the ball in an NFL game, dressing for three additional games, and then not dressing for the next five contests. While he sat, Sanders dressed in his place.

How did that make him feel?

"It's humbling," Brown said. "Thank God for the opportunity today."

Tomlin has been up front with both players that he wanted Sanders, the team's third-round draft choice, and Brown, a sixth-round pick, to engage in a weekly competition for playing time.

Survival of the fittest.

"We haven't been bashful about how we pitted those two against each other all year," Tomlin said. " 'Two dogs, one bone' is the phrase we've been using. They've grown because of the competition. They've driven one another. They're not finished products, but it's not too big for them."

Sanders and Brown, who are best friends, didn't permit the competition to affect their friendship.

"Antonio, that's like my brother over there," Sanders said. "Antonio has made me better, and I'm pretty sure he'll tell you that I've made him better. He makes me better because each week you've got to compete in practice every day. You've got to seize the moment."

"This has made me stronger," Brown said. "Football is a challenge, period. I don't take it as me against anyone else. I'm going to make the most of this opportunity."

Given Brown's play-making potential, it was confusing to me why Brown didn't dress for five consecutive games, given that veteran Antwaan Randle El's punt-return role has been reduced because of Sanders.

Randle El is more experienced than Sanders and Brown, but they are younger, faster and have more big-play potential.

Both players have a greater upside than Randle El. The only thing missing is experience.

The only way they'll gain experience is to continue playing and be permitted to play through their mistakes.

Roethlisberger said Brown didn't run the best route on his 21-yard reception, but Roethlisberger still came away impressed.

"He could have had a lot easier catch, but he wrestled it away," Roethlisberger said.

Sanders and Brown were targeted a total of five times against Oakland. Randle El did not record a catch in a game for the first time this season.

Brown had seven punt returns for a 9.4-yard average against the Raiders. Randle El made a fair catch on his only punt return yesterday.

Sanders was optimistic but realistic about the chances of him and Brown playing next Sunday at Buffalo.

"Hopefully next week the same thing happens," Sanders said.

Tomlin, of course, said no such thing.

"They have a ways to go," said the coach. "We're going to continue to use whatever motivational ploy to keep these guys (ready). I don't have to (decide) until 90 minutes before kickoff next week."

John Harris can be reached at jharris@tribweb.com or 412-481-5432.