The Steelers faced what was thought to be a spoil of riches at the wide receiver position in 2010. "Young Money," as they were called, mostly by themselves (unless in a mocking fashion by others), Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders all have paced this team in one regard or another since then. Wallace, the eldest, came to Pittsburgh in 2009, and Sanders (third round) in Brown (sixth round) in 2010.
Wallace took Miami's $60 million deal this offseason and ran to South Beach, while Sanders flirted briefly with the New England Patriots in restricted free agency. The Steelers locked Brown in place with a $43 million deal in 2012, sending the message to Wallace and Sanders Brown is their guy for the long haul.
Sanders, according to a feature story written in the Tribune-Review by Ralph N. Paulk Sunday, isn't concerned with his designation.
"I don't consider myself a No. 2. I just like to win," Sanders said. "I just like to play football. I know, at the end of the day, I can be a No. 1 in this league if the opportunity comes."
It appears that opportunity may have come and gone, though. And that isn't a reference to Sanders nearly going to the Patriots this offseason. Sanders had 22 targets through the Steelers' first two games, compared to Brown's 16. Brown's infamous confrontation with offensive coordinator Todd Haley on the sideline (and unconfirmed by Haley) may coincidentally be the reason why Brown's targets and catches increase substantially over the next two games. In Weeks 3 and 4, Brown had 26 total targets to Sanders' 16.
Paulk lays the suggestion in his article the return of tight end Heath Miller may have contributed to Sanders' reduction in looks from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and it very well may have. One also should look at the inclusion of running back Le'Veon Bell in the future as well. He played his first game in Week 4, grabbing four passes on five targets. Five other Steelers running back, including fullback Will Johnson, combined for 11 targets in the first four weeks of the season.
Topping it all off, Sanders' 52.6 percent targets caught rate puts him in the bottom 25 percent of the league - oddly, just a shade lower than Wallace (53.9) in Miami.
The flip side of this is how often it seems Roethlisberger missed Sanders down the field when he was open. He missed him streaking down the sideline against Chicago, and once against Tennessee and Cincinnati. Sanders has caught 50 percent of his targets in each of the last three games (4-for-8 in Weeks 3 and 4, and 5-for-10 against the Bengals in Week 2).
Whether it's the presence of Miller, the emergence of Brown or the lack of chemistry between himself and Roethlisberger, Sanders is getting plenty of opportunities to back up his claim of being a No. 1 receiver "if" the opportunity comes.
More from Behind the Steel Curtain:
- Jarvis Jones not pleased with his play so far
- NFL All Pro Defensive team through Week 4
- Weekend Checkdown: the top stories of the week
- Defensive concepts to maximize Steelers' effectiveness
- Steelers defense coming to grips with his place in league stats
- Nowhere for the Steelers to go but up from here
- NFL All Pro Offensive team through Week 4
- The Levi Brown trade and the power of change