PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 30: Emmanuel Sanders #88 of the Pittsburgh Steelers signals a first down against the New England Patriots at Heinz Field on October 30, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
With veteran Hines Ward out nursing an injury and the 32nd-ranked pass defense coming to town, it was crucial that Pittsburgh's young receivers step up—and boy did they ever.
For the first quarter of the Pittsburgh Steelers' convincing 25-17 victory over the New England Patriots, it was basically the Heath Miller Show. The stoic, sure-handed tight end snagged four balls for 55 yards on the team's first drive alone and looked like he was on his way to a career day. New England didn't seem to have an answer for Miller, who consistently found holes in coverage and dragged defenders in his wake for extra yardage.
While the Patriots made some adjustments and ultimately held Miller to "only" a team-high 85 yards, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger—who completed 72 percent of his passes for 7.3 yards per attempt—spread the ball around to numerous other targets, as four of his teammates finished with at least five catches and 65 yards through the air.
Wide receiver Antonio Brown, a player most known for his big play ability (video) and his sweet dance moves (video), recorded a workmanlike, decidedly Welkerian stat line (nine catches for 67 yards and a score), while superstar Mike Wallace was effective, chipping in another 70 yards, giving him an even 800 on the year.
Emmanuel Sanders (5 catches, 70 yards) was the guy I was really excited about, though. Brown and Wallace are burners who can beat guys deep or take short slant and drag routes the distance after the catch. They're both more exciting players than Sanders, sure. But Sanders is the best route-runner of the young trio by a mile. He's so fluid in the open field and has such fantastic footwork that he can shake defenders with ease. On Sunday, he looked like an NFL starter.
It's no wonder the Steelers finished with a 5:2 pass-to-rush ratio. With veteran Hines Ward out nursing an injury and the 32nd-ranked pass defense coming to town, it was crucial that these young receivers step up—and boy did they ever.