Nobody said it quite this way: The best things in life are threes, especially if you play wide receiver for the Steelers.
With rookies Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown seeing the field on offense more often and joining second-year man Mike Wallace, the Steelers have three of their most dynamic young receivers since that titanic trio from the '98-00 era: Hines Ward, Troy Edwards and Plaxico Burress.
To boot: Sanders, Wallace and Ward were all third-round picks. The Steelers packed off Santonio Holmes, their only remaining first-round pick at wide receiver, to the Jets this year. And Brown is twice times three -- a sixth-round pick.
"When we lost Santonio, we needed some depth at wide receiver," Ward said. "Emmanuel and Antonio have great talent, it's just a matter of trying to slowly ease them into the game until they get that comfort level."
Sanders and Brown each lined up together seven times when the Steelers used four wide receivers Sunday night in Baltimore. Brown caught three passes in that formation, one more than he had total in the previous four games he had played this season. Sanders also caught three passes, his second most in his nine games, and his 49 yards were the most he has had in a game.
The production by the two rookies who competed against each other for much of the season to be active on game day has inspired their coaches to keep it up.
"Each week you try to get them to grow a little bit more, and they've done a good job with their opportunities so far. So it won't be any less," coordinator Bruce Arians said.
The nurturing of Sanders, Brown and, to an extent, Wallace gives the Steelers something at the position they lost when Holmes left; they have great speed in Wallace and good speed and quickness in the other two. Sanders passed veteran Antwaan Randle El several games back as the No. 3 receiver. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the coaches have gained more confidence in Sanders and Brown.
"We just have to keep on those guys and keep them plugging along because they can be really good and helpful in certain areas," Roethlisberger said.
Said Sanders, "Me and Antonio, we're starting to see Ben trust in us a little bit. We're starting to understand the playbook and we're more comfortable out there and it's all starting to come together.
"I feel like we stretch a defense. We all can go deep, we all can come out of our breaks at any time and that kind of puts stress on the defense."
Ward noted that as defenses keyed more on Wallace and on him, it opened things up for Sanders. Wallace has 41 catches for 868 yards and eight touchdowns. He leads the NFL with an average of 21.2 yards per catch. Ward has 41 receptions for 523 yards. Sanders has 16 for 228, and Brown now has five for 53.
"The more and more they continue to make plays," Ward said, "the more and more I think it will balance our whole wide receiver corps out there, especially on third down."
"They call us the Young Money Crew," Sanders said. "We're just trying to come together, make plays and lead this team to the Super Bowl."
Wallace calls Brown "Cash Money" and Sanders "Young Money," although he's thinking of changing the latter to "Easy Money."
"Those guys have so much talent. I love them," Wallace said. "I get excited because they can make plays at any time."
With Wallace attracting more attention on his deep routes, the Steelers have been trying to get the ball quickly to Brown and Sanders so they can use their quickness for yards after the catch, but Sanders caught an important deeper one of 28 yards in Baltimore that set up a field goal.
"Quickness and speed," Arians said, naming their main attributes. "They're very good with the ball in their hands as return people, so you're looking for run after the catch from both of them, and they can also take the top end off the coverage so they're going to be a dynamic pair in the future.
"They have their kiddie gloves on still, but they're growing. I like where they're at right now."
Ward said there's still life in him, but he likes what the future holds at his position once he does retire.
"My career is not over this year; I still have some football left. But I think we're in good hands."
Aaron Smith may be lifting weights again but do not look for him to play in any of the four regular-season games left. The defensive end, who had surgery to repair a triceps after it was torn Oct. 24 in Miami, has another MRI scheduled in two weeks.
The hope for him and the Steelers is they will get one of the top two seeds and earn a bye the first week of the playoffs. That would buy Smith one more week and he might be able to make it for that first playoff game the weekend of Jan. 15-16. If that happens, it will have been worth them holding a spot on the roster for him.
Flozell Adams returned to practice and it appears he will make his 13th consecutive start at right tackle Sunday for the Steelers. He and rookie center Maurkice Pouncey are the only linemen who have started every game.
Adams left last Sunday night's game in Baltimore with what coach Mike Tomlin described as a mild high-ankle sprain. He did not practice Wednesday, but Arians said it was good to see him Thursday.
"He's persevered through it and he's not 100 percent, but he's a tough old pro. It's good to have him back out there.
Tight end Heath Miller (concussion) and safety Troy Polamalu (Achilles) did not practice again. Polamalu has missed two practices in each of the past three weeks but has not missed a game.