The Pittsburgh Steelers’ aerial attack has not been top five since Hines Ward was busting shin caps with blocks and grabbing 90 balls a year. It hasn’t been top three since the Hall of Fame combo of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth ruled the airwaves for the vaunted Steelers Dynasty of the ‘70s.
The word potential has swirled around this current Pittsburgh receiving core like a swarm of Wu-Tang Killer bees. The NFL world has been waiting for Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to all be healthy at once and blossom into the league’s most dangerous receiving core. This might be that year.
With their backfield reeling early on, the talented trio of Steelers receivers has had to carry the brunt of the offense for the first time. If Steelers’ head coach Mike Tomlin had it his way, Pittsburgh’s offense would keep a run-first philosophy. But he sees how the game is evolving, and realizes that his running backs can’t stay healthy. The Steelers have won three-straight games, despite missing power back Jonathan Dwyer (quad) and workhorse Rashard Mendenhall (saucy Achilles). Isaac Redman (3.6 ypc) was returning from his own injury when he gashed the Giants for 147 yards rushing on Sunday. Center Maurkice Pouncey, right guard David DesCastro and right tackle Marcus Gilbert have all missed time as well.
The unsettled backfield has made Pittsburgh more reliant on its passing game than usual. Luckily, Big Ben is never shy to fling it and Pittsburgh’s young guns know when its showtime.
Their performance so far has been a classic example of the Steelers’ philosophy in reverse. Pittsburgh has been using the pass to set up the run. Pittsburgh’s self-proclaimed “Young Money Crew” is shining, earning their scratch, and embracing being featured attractions in the offense.
Brown is the tough guy, going over the middle to take short darts from Big Ben and turn them into large plays. He’s following a dope 2011, leading the Steelers with 42 grabs. Mike Wallace – a.k.a The Flash – is the NFL’s fastest deep threat, and showed that he could do-the-do across the middle too, torching the menacing Giants D for a game-changing 51-yard explosion off a shallow crossing route.
At the start of last year’s training camp, Sanders was on crutches with a protective boot covering his ankle. He used an abbreviated but effective 13-game 2011, as a glimpse into his bright future. This season, Sanders has stayed healthy, and the shifty-speed demon is starting to contribute as a receiver (302 yards) and dangerous punt returner.
With Brown out (ankle) next Monday night against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sanders will suit up alongside Wallace to set things off. Sanders, who was drafted in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft, three rounds before Brown, is looking to make his mark as a go-to guy on a prime time stage.
Wallace was the first of the bunch drafted in ’09 to add speed to an aging Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes. He is the No. 1 guy now and has a team-high 525 yards.
With the addition of Sanders and Brown, and then losing Holmes to the Jets and Ward to retirement, Pittsburgh completed its revamped passing attack. They transformed from a rigid, plodding group, to more swift- deftifying pass grabbers. This season, the addition of O.G. Jericho Cotchery has added solid veteran leadership. Veteran tight end Health Miller can still fetch it and leads the team with six TD grabs. Pittsburgh’s rise back into contention can be directly related to the health and emergence of Pittsburgh’s balanced bunch of receivers. These cats can flat out ball with anyone in this pass-stupid NFL, where the elite teams have the illest air handle.
The competition is stiff too. The Giants always come correct. Victor Cruz is still assaulting NFL defenses. Hakeem Nicks has been banged up, but when healthy, he is Top 5.
Atlanta has two of the league’s best in Roddy White and Julio Jones. White is a fearless pass- catching machine and Jones is a multi-faceted deep threat. Add Tony Gonzales – the greatest pass catching tight end in history – and they are a nightmare matchup for any secondary.
The Saints Marques Colston and Lance Moore are nothing to sneeze at either. Tom Brady has wild weapons in tight end Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker. Green Bay has big targets all day for Aaron Rodgers, in James Jones, Jordy Nelson and when healthy, Greg Jennings.
We already know the ceiling for most of these receivers. In fact, most of these guys’ best days are behind them. They are crafty veterans with mad platinum plaques up on the wall.
The Steelers receivers, however, are young and fresh to death. They are in that Kendrick Lamar zone right now. Something big is brewing in Steel Town. They’re just getting comfortable leading the rush-reliant offense.
Receivers adopt a different mentality when they know they are a first option. If Roethlisberger ‘s going to fling it 40 times a game to Wallace, Brown and Sanders, that’s a lot of aerial madness. The Steelers defense is money, but putting up points is a must if this is truly a Super Bowl run they’re on. Thanks to the cultural shift inspired by Pittsburgh’s burgeoning receiving core, the Steelers are slowly turning the staple “5 yards and a cloud of dust,” into “deep throws, quick hits and streaks for six.” Defensive backs need not sleep on the Steelers pass attack. It might just be the best in the business by year’s end.