Mike Wallace left for the Miami Dolphins and Sanders moved firmly into the team’s No. 2 receiver role behind Antonio Brown. However, six weeks into the season, not only has Sanders failed to shine, but his production has decreased nearly every week.
Not only was the Steelers’ leading receiver in 2012 gone, but their leader in receptions—Heath Miller—was also slated to miss the start of 2013 as he recovered from an ACL tear. Someone had to make up that production and Sanders appeared to be the man.
Not only were football writers confident in Sanders, but so was his agent.
Back in April, Sanders’ agent Jordan Woy told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that any potential contract with the Steelers would have to be “a very good deal” in order to get Sanders to sign. No deal was made and Sanders entered the season on a one-year contract, and the season has not gone quite as planned.
Sanders had a hot start to the season with 12 receptions (22 targets) for 135 yards in the first two games of the season. But after that, Miller returned to the lineup and Sanders' production has fallen off a cliff.
Over his next four games, Sanders caught just 12 passes (24 targets) for 173 yards and a touchdown. Of a greater concern is that his production went down in each of the last three games. Against the Baltimore Ravens, he had only one reception for seven yards.
Not only has Miller’s return to the lineup had an impact on his receiving totals but so has the emergence of Brown as a No. 1 receiver.
Brown is second in the league with 47 receptions and has had no fewer than five receptions in any game this season.
There are only so many passes to go around, and with over 32 percent of Ben Roethlisberger’s completions—Big Ben averages 24 completions per game—going Brown’s way, Sanders opportunities have been limited.
Brown not only has been productive in terms of receptions, but he is ranked second in the league in Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement rating. By comparison, Sanders currently ranks 79th—just two spots behind Mike Wallace.
But the low rating and relatively disappointing performance through six games should not get Sanders discouraged. He has 10 more games to not only turn around his season, but become one of the Steelers' most dangerous weapons.
Despite the resurgence of the ground attack against Baltimore last week, Pittsburgh with Roethlisberger will primarily be a passing team. That means that Sanders will have plenty of opportunities as the season moves forward.
Despite the recent decline of Sanders' play, his current pace of four receptions per game is already well ahead of his career-high pace of 2.75 receptions per game in 2012. He also currently projects to finish the year with 821 receiving yards. That falls below the 1,000 yards that the team wanted from him but is a level of production that you would certainly take from your No. 2 receiver.
Over the recent weeks, offensive coordinator Todd Haley has focused on getting Roethlisberger to get rid of the ball quickly. That approach should come as no surprise since the Steelers have faced some challenging defenses and have issues along the offensive line.
So far, Brown has been the target on wide receiver screens, but the short-passing game also plays right into the strengths of Sanders.
He may be the best route-runner on the team and has very strong hands, which is evident in his ability to make the catch over the middle in traffic. At this point, he just needs the opportunity to showcase these skills.
As the ground attack improves, and if Brown continues to be a focus in the screen game, Sanders will also have a chance to make plays in the deep passing game.
Early in the year, Sanders just missed on some long passes from Roethlisberger, but he showed signs of life a couple of weeks ago.
“We're working every day to make those big plays in the game,” Sanders said. “Like the rest of Steeler Nation, I'm ready to catch one of those deep balls. I feel like the tide will turn soon, and we'll get on a roll.”
He did catch one of those deep balls—a 55-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger. It was the Steelers' longest offensive play of the season.
These are the types of plays that the Steelers don’t just need from Sanders; they expect them from Sanders. At some point defenses are going to key in on Brown, and that will leave Sanders as the receiver matched up in man-to-man coverage
Once he starts taking advantage of these matchups and making plays, Sanders won’t just have more balls thrown his way; he'll establish himself as a true No. 2 receiver.
Sanders has always had the potential; now, it is the time for him to realize it. He will have plenty of opportunities to prove himself over the final 10 games of the season.
Once he does, he can show that he can be a receiver that defenses must worry about.