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Old 12-23-2010, 09:12 AM   #1
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Default Sanders making impact for Steelers

Sanders making impact for Steelers
By Mark Kaboly
Thursday, December 23, 2010

Dealing with a leg injury was not fun for Emmanuel Sanders.

Battling Antonio Brown for a game day spot earlier this year wasn't fun, either. Getting five passes thrown to him during the first half of the season probably was the least fun of all.

But Sanders has been thriving since, as he has become a viable part of the Steelers offense.

Sanders has caught 18 passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns the past six games, including a career day against the Jets last week.

"You go through so much as a rookie," Sanders said. "You are battling being on a new team, trying to learn the playbook, then you have the rookie treatment. It has been hard, but I am slowly getting adjusted to it."

Sanders has been a go-to guy of late for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Sanders was targeted a team-high 13 times and caught a career-high seven passes for 76 yards against the Jets.

During the past six games, Roethlisberger has thrown his way 38 times -- just 10 fewer than leading receiver Mike Wallace and seven more than Hines Ward.

"He has really grown up fast," Roethlisberger said. "He keeps fighting, and he makes plays and he is a guy, honestly, he can be as good as he wants to be."

Sanders, a third-round draft choice in April, had a rough start.

He hurt his leg in the season-opener against Atlanta, shelving him the following week against Tennessee. Brown, his replacement, returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown against the Titans.

The Steelers deactivated Sanders the next two games.

Midway through his rookie season, he had four catches for 76 yards and was inactive for as many games as he played.

Then a light went on.

"He realized that you can't take anything from granted," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. "He has made leaps and bounds as a player. He has all the necessary skill set to be very good."

Sanders eventually supplanted veteran Antwaan Randle El as the third receiver. He hasn't looked back.

"He has always had the talent," Wallace said. "You have a lot going on. You might run a route or be in a wrong spot, but that isn't happening anymore."

Sanders has made key catches five of the past six games. A lot of that has to do with being locked up against the opponent's third cornerback -- a battle his teammates expect him to win.

"Guys are going to take on Hines and myself, so he is always going to get a favorable matchup," Wallace said. "I don't think anybody can stop him."

Wallace served as the No. 3 receiver last year behind Ward and Santonio Holmes, catching 39 passes and six touchdowns.

"They tried to take me and Tone away, and Mike took advantage of their third corner, and I think (Sanders) is doing the same thing," Ward said.

Against the Jets, Sanders found himself covered by Dwight Lowery, not Darrelle Revis or Antonio Cromartie.

"He gives us something we needed since we lost Santonio, and that was the third guy and the run-after-the-catch guy," Arians said.

The Steelers traded Holmes about the same time they drafted Sanders with the hope he could fill Holmes' shoes.

"He has come up and made some huge plays for us," Ward said. "He is still a work in progress, but I like the direction he is heading."

Mark Kaboly can be reached at mkaboly@dailynewsemail.com or 412-664-9161.
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