Steelers in good hands of top 3 receivers

NFL Preseason: Steelers vs. Panthers

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In his 14th season with the team that drafted him in the third round in 1998, Hines Ward knows he is not going to play many more seasons. But, when he leaves, the club's all-time leading receiver knows his position will be in good hands, literally and figuratively.

That's because the Steelers might have the best trio of young receivers in the NFL.

"It's a real sign the future of the wideouts that we have," Ward said. "We didn't go out and draft any guys because we're comfortable with the young guys we have. When I do leave, we'll be in good hands. They're very talented."

And they are very different.

Mike Wallace, who enters his third season, already is one of the league's top deep threats with his sprinter's speed.

Emmanuel Sanders, a No. 3 pick in 2010, might be the best route-runner on the team and reads defenses as well as the coaching staff.

And Antonio Brown has spent the preseason showing off his big-play ability and turning his mistakes into touchdowns.

The Steelers have to go back to 2000 when they had Ward, Plaxico Burress and Troy Edwards to find a more talented trio of young receivers on their roster.

"They can be special," said safety Ryan Clark, who has to cover them in practice. "The good thing about them is they have three different skill sets. Each of them is very talented, but they're all so different. And what makes them a strong trio is that they're not like the trio Green Bay would have.

"Green Bay has kind of the same guy, different numbers. Whereas, with these guys, you're able to line them all over the field in different spots and you have to try to stop them all."

Just like Ward, who needs 46 catches to become only the eighth player in NFL history to have 1,000 career receptions, the Steelers found all three in the third round or later.

Throw in newcomer Jerricho Cotchery, a fourth-round pick of the New York Jets in 2004, and the Steelers have the potential to have maybe the deepest corps of receivers in the league without a No. 1 draft pick among them.

"You don't always have to find players in the first round," said Wallace, a third-round pick. "Look at Hines."

And, sometimes, you find them in the sixth round, such as Brown.

Sanders and Brown did not compile prolific numbers as rookies, combining for 44 catches, 543 yards and 2 touchdowns. But, with Sanders' precise route-running and assimilation of the offense and Brown's penchant for big plays -- especially after his performance last week against the Atlanta Falcons -- the Steelers merely are waiting for each to have breakout seasons.

Couple that with Wallace, who had a team-high 1,257 yards and 10 touchdowns and led the AFC with a 21-yard average in 2010, and the Steelers have the nucleus of a talented and diverse receiving trio, none of whom have been in the league longer than three years.

"Those guys are great players," Wallace said. "Coming in, they were much better route-runners than I was. I was really raw. Those guys could really run routes already, especially Sanders. [Brown] was probably more explosive, but they were kind of a mixed-and-match set. The sky is the limit for them."

Sanders missed nearly all training camp at Saint Vincent College and has not played in the preseason because his surgically repaired left foot was slow to heal. But, he returned to full practice this week and is expected to play, barring a setback, in the preseason finale tonight at Carolina.

Asked to evaluate the young receivers, Ward gave the following assessment:

Wallace: "He has that one thing you can't teach -- speed. But I want Mike to become an all-around receiver, not just the speed, the deep guy. You can be an explosive wide receiver by catching curls catching digs, things like that."

Sanders: "He's probably more polished than all of them. He has the understanding of the offense. He could play inside and outside. The slot guy is the quarterback of the wideouts."

Brown: "A.B. has that dog in him, that mentality, I see him playing with that chip on his shoulders. He's always trying to prove to someone he can play. He plays with a little more anger. I really like working with him."

ON THE

WEB

Look for the postgame Steelers Report video with Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac from Charlotte, N.C., and also additional photos from tonight's final preseason game at

www.post- gazette.com

TONIGHT

Matchup: Steelers at Carolina Panthers, Charlotte, N.C., 8 p.m. TV: KDKA.

It's preseason, but ...

Steelers receiving leaders through three preseason games:

Player No. Ypc.

Antonio Brown 9 25.6

Arnaz Battle 7 12.6

Hines Ward 4 12.3

Rashard Mendenhall 3 6.7

Seven players tied with 2


Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com and Twitter @gerrydulac.


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