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A Big Test and Opportunity for the Pittsburgh Steelers' Young Wide Receivers

Happy Friday you all. Hope your weeks have been enjoyable and productive. Just a quick post to start the weekend about the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday night tilt with the Baltimore Ravens.

I wouldn't feel comfortable 'predicting' who will win this week. Not with Ben Roethlisberger's health a question mark, and more importantly, because it's the Steelers and Ravens. You know it's going to be close. I think there's a number of different ways that both teams can emerge victorious. Both teams can put up points in a hurry in the passing game; both can win in an grind-it-out slug fest; and both teams have play-makers on defense that can turn a game in their team's favor.

However, this year's Steelers squad is missing the one player that Baltimore has the most difficult time containing. Santonio Holmes. Make no mistake about it, the Steelers and their fans (myself included) have moved on from Holmes. I don't think anybody in Steeler Nation has any real ill-will towards Holmes, but true Steelers want to be here, and conduct themselves on and off the field accordingly. (If you immediately just thought to yourself, 'what about Big Ben?' Well, he's a $100+ million dollar man, so he gets an extra get-out-of-jail-free card(s) than everybody else, but it's safe to say that he's on his last chance). More importantly, there's Mike Wallace filling his shoes tremendously this season. The second-year WR out of Ole Miss is having a Pro Bowl caliber season, and he's quieted any doubts about whether he would be able to slide into a No. 2 type role.

However, Wallace has yet to prove that he's capable of producing against the Steelers' most important opponent - the Ravens. That's not a knock on Wallace necessarily. Not yet at least.In the teams' Week 4 meeting, Wallace caught two passes for 2 receptions for 24 yards. Charlie Batch was under center though. In his one game against the Ravens that Roethlisberger played, Week 16 last year, Wallace had three catches for 83 yards. Not bad at all.

But Holmes left huge shoes to fill when it comes to his productivity against Baltimore. Here are Holmes' career totals against the Ravens:

Game Receptions Yards TDs
2006 Week 12 3 31 0
2006 Week 16 5 90 0
2007 Week 9 4 110 2
2007 Week 17 4 98 1
2008 Week 4 3 61 1
2008 Week 15 3 21 1
2008 AFCCG 2 70 1
2009 Week 12 6 74 1
2009 Week 16 5 86 1
Totals 35 641 8



We'll see how Wallace performs. But I'd contend it's equally, if not more important that the Steelers get contributions in the passing game from either Emmanuel Sanders or Antonio Brown...or both, though I doubt both will be active this week. It might make sense however to deactivate Antwaan Randle El this week in favor of Brown. If he makes a mistake, so be it. The Ravens secondary can be attacked with speedy receivers that are good after the catch.

I happen to believe that Randle El has legitimate value to this team - as an occasional 3rd down possession receiver, and because of his ability to make defenses prepare for and account for him and his gadget-play ability. Against the Ravens though, I'd rather have more speed out there. I can't see Randle El breaking any tackles and picking up big yardage after the catch against Baltimore. Sanders and Brown might be a different story.

I've been wondering though how much upside Sanders has after the catch. I love what he's shown as a rookie. Let me make that claer. He's clearly got 'it' as a competitor - not satisfied by his accomplishments, and not too hard on himself when he inevitably fails. He had a big drop last week against the Bills, but I don't see that sticking with him this week.

However, I don't think Sanders is strong enough yet to break tackles. Only 32 of his 179 receiving yards have come after the catch, or roughly 16 percent. By contrast, 169 of Holmes' 491 receiving yards this season have been after the catch. That's about 30 percent, an exceptional ratio. Even Wallace, who's having an amazing season, is only at about 23 percent.

If there ever were a game for Wallace and Sanders (and Brown too if he gets a hat) to make plays after the catch, it would be this week. I think we'll see the Steelers try to run the ball, but history suggests it will be tough sledding in that department. Hines Ward and Heath Miller will do what they do - make plays in the seam, over the middle, and in the flats, then fight and scrap for yards after the catch. However, if Ben Roethlisberger doesn't have much time to go through his progressions and wait for guys to get open down the field, it's imperative that the passing game not shut down entirely. That means quick-hitting passing plays that actually work.

Easier said than done, but much of the burden falls on the guy receiving the ball to make the first guy miss in order for bubble screens and quick slants to work. Santonio was great in that regard thanks to his vision, explosive first few steps, and the world-class balance he possesses. I'm not convinced Sanders has those god-given physical gifts. His talents lie more in his outstanding hands and his understanding of how to get open against zone coverage.  I do believe Sanders can make those types of plays. Maybe not consistently, but he's got good enough raw speed to take it the distance if he gets past his man.

I think Brown has better vision and is a bit more naturally gifted at making the first guy miss with his shifty moves. But Brown clearly has work to do before seeing the field regularly as a wide receiver. So it may not be realistic to think that he'll get his first shot in months in a situation like this. You never know though.

In order to beat Baltimore on the road with a banged up quarterback and patchwork offensive line, the Steelers almost assuredly need a solid defensive performance. Even if they get that, they may still need someone not named Hines or Heath to have a significant impact in the passing game. The countdown to Sunday night is on. Can't wait.

Go Steelers!