On the Steelers: Tomlin undecided on kick returns

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It is not often a rookie returner who has an 89-yard kick return for a touchdown on his professional resume is replaced three games later by another rookie who hasn't returned a kickoff since his freshman season in college.

But that's what the Steelers (3-1) are prepared to do when they play the Cleveland Browns (1-4) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Field, even though coach Mike Tomlin said he hasn't decided whether he will make the move to replace Antonio Brown with Emmanuel Sanders.

If he does, it is not because Tomlin believes Sanders, a third-round draft choice from Southern Methodist University, is a better kick returner than Brown. Rather, it is because the coaches think Sanders is a more accomplished wide receiver than Brown, a sixth-round pick from Central Michigan.

And, with the return of Ben Roethlisberger from his four-game suspension, the Steelers might be more inclined to use Sanders as part of a four-wide receiver formation ---- something they have used sparingly without their two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback.

But Tomlin said after practice Friday that he hasn't decided whether he will use Brown or Sanders and won't make a decision until "90 minutes before kickoff," referring to the time when he has to list his inactive players for the game.

Tomlin also said he won't decide until then who will be his No. 2 quarterback behind Roethlisberger -- Charlie Batch or Byron Leftwich, even though Batch has played 10 1/2 of the 16 quarters this season.

Sanders and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said Sanders will play against the Browns. Sanders also said he will return kickoffs but that Antwaan Randle El would continue to return punts.

"The opportunity was handed to me and I'm not going to think too much about it," Sanders said. "I'm looking forward to doing returns and playing offense, too, now that Big Ben is back."

Sanders started the season as the No. 4 wide receiver and dressed for the opener against the Atlanta Falcons. However, he injured a quadriceps muscle in that game and was replaced by Brown against the Titans.

The first time Brown touched the ball in an NFL regular-season game, he took the kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown.

"It's been more about special teams up to this point," Arians said. "Emmanuel has been a little ahead [of Brown] in receiving and behind in special teams. And you got three teams to fill. That's what is tricky about the 45-man roster on Sunday."

Then he added, "But this is his week. He'll get a hat this week."

Brown has one catch for 6 yards in three games, but the Steelers have rarely used a four-wide receiver formation in the four games without Roethlisberger.

There are several reasons for that.

One, the Steelers are trying to keep tight end Heath Miller, who usually comes out of the game when there are four wide receivers, on the field as much as possible.

Two, Sanders and Brown are rookies and still learning their assignments.

And, three, Roethlisberger has not been playing.

"I don't know. It's a long story," Brown said about the decision to replace him. "It's up to the coaches. The coaches make decisions. I'm a player. I'm just thankful I'm part of the organization. I know coach [Tomlin] is going to make the right decision to do what's best for the team, to give it the best chance to win. As long as I stay working and stay ready."

NOTES -- Browns Coach Eric Mangini did not say officially on Friday, but it appears rookie quarterback Colt McCoy will start against the Steelers. He has taken most of the first-team snaps in practice this week. ... Also, running back Peyton Hillis (quad), center Alex Mack (shoulder) and guard Floyd Womack (knee) returned to practice and are expected to play.

Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com .


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