It’s been quite awhile since we as fans could say that the Steelers have a definite strong point in all facets at the Wide Receiver position. Sure we’ve had Hines Ward for a long time now, a rock solid target for Ben and one of the best ever at his position. A couple years ago Santonio Holmes and a young rookie named Mike Wallace were the counterparts to Ward and the future seemed bright. The Steelers traded Holmes to the Jets after one too many offseason issues and suddenly it was just Ward, Wallace, and a bunch of questions marks at such an important skill position. Mike Tomlin answered those question marks by adding Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown in the 2010 NFL draft. Those 2 young rookies coupled with an emerging star in Wallace and the veteran Hines Ward have formed a lethal quartet at Wide Receiver and a bright future to look to.
Hines Ward: The 14 yr veteran and future Hall of Famer is still going strong and has decided to return in 2011 to try and make a run at another title before he hangs up the cleats. Ward hinted at possibly considering retirement if the Steelers were to win number 7 this past season, but alas, that wasn’t to be. Shortly after the Super Bowl, Ward told reporters that he was coming back next season. This is good news because Ward, as we saw in the post season, still has some tread left on the tires and contributions to offer to Roethlisberger & Bruce Arians. The crafty veteran may not be putting up the big numbers anymore but his leadership on and off the field and his ability to still be the tough guy going across the middle can’t be discounted.
Mike Wallace: Finishing up his 2nd year in 2010, Wallace has emerged as a legitimate deep threat and one of the most lethal big play Wide Receivers in the NFL. His speed is beyond sick, when he takes off there’s not many in the NFL, if any at all, that can catch him. Tomlin sent a message to Wallace early in training camp, encouraging him to not be just a “one trick pony”. Wallace responded by elevating his game to include running better routes and being able to adjust to the ball in traffic. We also noticed Wallace taking a more active role in the patented “slant” pattern in Bruce Arians’ offense, a roll in which he shined. His stats in 2010 included 60 catches for 1,257 yds and 10 Touchdowns, including a 21.0 ypc average. Anytime Ben goes down field, he’s usually looking for Wallace. The two have developed quite a rapport and that tandem should soar to even greater heights in 2011.
Emmanuel Sanders & Antonio Brown: Both Sanders and Brown spent the 1st half of the regular season in stiff competition each week as Tomlin made it clear he was looking for both of them to step up. Purposefully putting them in competition during the week for a roster spot the following Sunday worked out better than maybe Tomlin even thought. Whoever made the most plays in practice would get the roster spot. Sometimes it was Sanders, sometimes it was Brown, but whenever they got the chance they both took advantage of it. The Steelers also brought in veteran Antwaan Randle El as insurance, and he started at the 3rd spot for the first half of the season. By the midway point though he was quickly losing playing time to both of the rookies and would soon step aside as the youngsters took on more and more responsibility on game day. These 2 had to grow up fast in the NFL and they responded quite nicely I’m sure you’d admit. Sure they had their share of drops, or getting swallowed up in coverage by a good secondary, but it was a learning experience that will serve them well. Both players were instrumental in the post season, making big plays to help push the Steelers to Dallas. Probably one of the most memorable was the 3rd and 19 circus catch by Brown in the divisional round vs. the Ravens. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin hit a couple of big winners in the draft with these 2, personally I can’t wait to see how much they improve next year.
The Rest: As we mentioned, Randle El was brought in as insurance for both Wide Receiver and Punt Returner. Brown eventually took over nearly all the punt return duties and while El did make some significant plays especially late in the year, it’s unknown yet if he’ll return. He would have take a back seat to the starting 4, but if he is wiling to do so, then I wouldn’t mind seeing him back. Limas Sweed will be entering his 4th year in the NFL, and if he’s not careful it could be his last. The former 2nd round pick has had to battle through injuries and inconsistent play since he was drafted and to this point hasn’t panned out to what the Steelers had in mind when they drafted him. Tomlin mentioned that he will get a chance to compete for a roster spot in training camp, after spending 2010 on injured reserve, but the competition will be stiff to say the least. If he does make the roster he’ll be a special teamer and will need to fight every chance he gets this coming year. Arnaz Battle saw little playing time in 2010 on offense, but his contributions on special teams were valuable. The Steelers usually keep a few guys on the roster specifically as aces for the coverage and return teams, and Battle could be brought back for that role. The Steelers also added Wes Lyons a few weeks ago, who didn’t play in 2010 but will be able to compete with the rest of the group this offseason. Lyons is a huge target, 6’8″ and 245 lbs., and if he can take advantage of this opportunity he could surprise some people.
All in all, if the Steelers do address this position in the upcoming draft, it will most likely be a late round value pick. If they do it will be tough for said player to make roster since the starting 4 are already in place. Between Sweed, Randle El, Battle, and any draft picks added to this group, the Steelers are definitely set with some great targets for Ben to utilize.