It was so close yet so far for the Steelers, ending one touchdown drive shy of their third Super Bowl championship since 2006. Though the season ended with Steelers players being ushered off the field as if they were strangers crashing a Packers party, it’s important to focus on the many positives of their season.
After a tumultuous offseason that saw the Steelers get rid of Santonio Holmes – their leading receiver from 2009 – and Ben Roethlisberger get suspended for the first four games of the year, the outlook for 2010 wasn’t promising. With the combined efforts of Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch, however, the Steelers managed to win three of their first four games without Roethlisberger and after starting better than anyone though imaginable, they appeared as a team with the potential to be Super Bowl champions.
Pittsburgh finished the season with a 12-4 record and an AFC North championship behind strong play on both sides of the ball. Their run to the Superbowl saw them beat their rival Ravens in a slugfest and hold off a late charge by the Jets in the AFC championship game. Unfortunately for Steelers fans, the season would end 67 yards short of Lombardi trophy glory.
Though pain may remain, it’s time for the Steelers to focus on avoiding the Superbowl hangover that has prevented seven of the past ten Super Bowl runners-up from even making the playoffs. One player they will be relying on playing a greater role in their offensive attack is second-year receiver Emmanuel Sanders, the Steelers’ Secret Superstar.
The SMU Superstar
SMU wasn’t exactly a football powerhouse when Emmanuel Sanders arrived in 2005. As a matter of fact, the SMU Mustangs didn’t have anything good going for them since their team was given the NCAA “Death Penalty” in 1987. After more than 20 years without even so much as a bowl appearance, Sanders helped propel the Mustangs to a 2009 bowl win in his senior season – their first since 1984.
Sanders finished his four-year career with 285 receptions, 3,791 yards, and 34 touchdowns – virtually breaking every SMU receiving record. After finishing his stellar career, he then used the combine to elevate his draft stock for those skeptical of the level of competition of his opponents.
Finishing the 2010 combine as a top performer in all significant measurable categories – including the third-fastest 40 time among receivers – he opened the eyes of a lot of teams. Ultimately, this speedy Texas native was selected midway through the third round and has proven to be quite the find for the Steelers.
See ya later Holmes
After trading former Superbowl MVP Santonio Holmes away for a measly fifth-round draft pick, most probably thought the Rooney’s overreacted a bit. After a 2009 season that saw Holmes catch 79 passes for 1,248 yards, 5 touchdowns and finish with a +12.1 grade (10th best among receivers in 2010,) it would have been ludicrous to suggest that the Steelers’ passing offense might be more dynamic without him. Yet, that’s exactly what it was. The 2010 season saw Hines Ward continue to play great in his 14th NFL season, Mike Wallace establish himself as one of the most dangerous deep threats in the NFL, and Emmanuel Sanders work his way up the depth chart as player with the perfect skill set to compliment the other two.
The beginning of Sanders’ season wasn’t remarkable. In fact, from the outset till the Steelers Week 9 contest against the Bengals, Sanders had played 41 total snaps. In Week 10 alone he had 69 while filling in for an injured Hines Ward and caught the first touchdown of his career. Despite Ward’s return from injury the next week, the Steelers had seen enough in those 69 snaps to decide he was too good to be left warming a seat on the bench. In the final ten games of Pittsburgh’s season, Sanders averaged 38 snaps per game, effectively replacing Antwaan Randle El whose snap count dwindled from an average of 28 to just 10 snaps per game.
Emmanuel Sanders finished with a +3.7 rating – third best among Steelers receivers. Though this may not sound great, what makes Sanders so dangerous is how well his skills compliment both Ward and Wallace. In terms of yards per catch, Sanders is the intermediate threat making crisp cuts at 15 yards with Ward underneath and Wallace over-the-top. With three viable options, even the stingiest defenses can be burned as they focus on limiting one option over another. In the divisional playoff round for example, the Ravens (PFF’s highest rated pass defense team) did well in limiting both Ward and Wallace but, as a consequence, allowed Emmanuel Sanders to have his best game as a pro (+1.8) en route to a 31-24 victory.
A foot injury ended Sanders’ season about three quarters earlier than the rest of the Steelers, as he was forced to watch the field disappear from view while being driven away on a golf cart. After being sidelined for the end of the biggest game of his life, it’s now time to see if Sanders can return in 2011 to progress into a consistently dangerous third weapon for the Steelers.
If so, the only thing disappearing from Sanders’ view will be defenders…and this Superstar’s secrecy.