Gone is Santonio Holmes and his Super Bowl MVP performance of 9 catches for 131 yds. and the game winning Touchdown. Enter in a trio of young Wide Receivers to pick up the slack and take on a prominent role in the Steeler offense. Normally it takes a minimum of 2-3 full years before these up and comers really to start to catch on and "get it" as they say. NFL offenses are complex, and the defenders are faster, stronger, more experienced than what they are used to seeing in college. Considering the complexity of the play calls and situations that young players are put in, it's even more amazing when you see rookies and 2nd year players really make an impact so early in their career.
Such is the story with 2nd year receiver Mike Wallace, and the rookie duo of Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Speedster Mike Wallace burst onto the scene into 2009, quickly solidifying the 3rd WR spot on the offense and by the end of the year was seeing significant playing time in all situations. Some said that he was just reaping the benefits of veterans Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes, and no one was sure if he could handle a starring role in 2010. Wallace took that rookie year and turned it into a 60 catch, 1,257 yd. and 10 Touchdown campaign in 2010. With Holmes gone and Ward mainly the slot/possession receiver, it was up to Wallace to take on a bigger role, a role in which he excelled to say the least. His 21.0 yd. per catch average was 2nd best in the NFL at the end of the regular season. With so much potential the sky is the limit for this superstar. Not only can Wallace outrun just about anybody or anything on the planet, but his improved route running has made him an even more complete threat.
Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians runs a lot of multiple receiver sets in his offense, so having players capable of being effective in the 3rd and 4th spots is a must. Brown and Sanders have done just that. Both players combined for 44 catches for 573 yds. and 2 TD's (Brown also had a kick off return for a TD). Not so much the amount of yards but it's the catches that are most significant for these 2. Sanders has been a big play target for Ben Roethlisberger, proving his not afraid to go across the middle and leave himself exposed to the big hit, so he can make the catch. That's the type of attitude and performance you get from a player learning under the veteran tough guy himself, Hines Ward. In a Steeler offense you don't survive the roster cuts in August unless you can go across the middle. Sanders is not only fast, his knack for finding the holes in the defense to make the big catch is becoming more and more regular. Antonio Brown has been a bright spot not only in the return game, but he's been making a name for himself when the game is on the line. Normally a Quarterback will look to his trusty, veteran, players when you need that must have 1st down to keep a drive alive. Brown has proven more than capable of filling that role, especially in the playoffs. An intelligent, tough player, Antonio has given the Steeler offense yet another outlet for defenses to be concerned about. In the 2010 Dvisional and Conference Championship games, Roethlisberger looked to Antonio Brown both times on 3rd down in the final minutes of the game to help seal the win. Against the Ravens he made a circus catch clutched to his helmet as Ben tossed up a prayer on 3rd and 19. Ben may have had full confidence in Brown to make that catch, but to the fans on that play it was a prayer and Tone made sure he answered it. In the Jets game, he again somehow found Brown coming free on 3rd down to make sure the Steelers didn't allow the Jets another offensive possession.
Both the Ravens and Jets have big names in their secondaries, each one of them capable of handling virtually any NFL wide receiver. The Packers are no different and in many ways are better, so the test will be great. Having gone up against such top notch competition this year and especially here of late will serve these young guys well as they enter the biggest stage of their lives. One thing is clear though, with these 3 pass catchers still getting their feet wet in their NFL careers, they have proven they have what it takes in big game situations. Ben will need solid performances from all of his receivers and a few big plays will certainly be a factor in the final outcome. Clearly all three of guys "get it", and that's good news for the Steelers heading into Super Bowl XLV.
Are they up for the challenge? We shall see...