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Kovacevic: Pay up, Steelers' 'Money' men

| Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012, 11:38 p.m.
Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders celebrates his second-quarter touchdown against the Giants on Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders celebrates his second-quarter touchdown against the Giants on Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review

The extra pep in Plaxico Burress' step as he has bounced about the Steelers' complex this week has almost everything to do with the new lease on his NFL career.

But, to hear him tell it, there's another factor, too: “I don't think I've ever been around a better collection of receivers. And I think that says a lot.”

It does, absolutely.

When Burress last played here, his mates were Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El.

When winning the Super Bowl with the 2007 Giants, it was Amani Toomer.

With the Jets last year, it was Santonio Holmes and an older Derrick Mason.

That's pretty solid company. But none measures up, Burress maintains, with “the great talent, the great speed,” of the Steelers' self-dubbed “Money” quartet of Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery.

Is the sentiment justified?

Ask me, and we'll know a lot more soon.

Because with the Steelers about to visit Cleveland and Baltimore, with barely another “L” to give, with the top two quarterbacks' ribs misplaced, with Brown still hobbled by the bum ankle, we're about to see if this deep, dynamic receiving corps is truly the team strength.

Not a team strength.

The team strength.

That's been the common wisdom since TVs were lugged into Latrobe dorms, but it sure hasn't applied of late.

Remember the Kansas City game, when Wallace, Sanders and Cotchery couldn't create an inch of separation from the Chiefs' secondary?

Even in the first half, when Ben Roethlisberger was still in there, the one and only catch by a wide receiver was Wallace's squeeze-the-legs touchdown.

They weren't much better against a softer Baltimore secondary Sunday. Wallace had four catches for a bubble-screen-esque 24 yards and failed to pull off a critical end-zone fade. (Hello, Plax!) Sanders had 82 receiving yards but just three catches. Cotchery had two before a rib injury.

In these two games without Brown, the wide receivers have produced a combined 15 catches, or roughly two per quarter.

Wallace had seven catches for 38 yards, Sanders five catches for 112 yards.

Sorry, but Ben or no Ben, Brown or no Brown, that's not good enough. Not for this group. Not for these two talents.

Wallace is supposed to be a No. 1 guy, and you can be sure he'll expect to be paid like one next summer. But he ranks 33rd in the NFL with 42 catches, 36th with 565 receiving yards. There haven't been as many deep shots, to be fair, but there's more to being a No. 1 than the home run.

Sanders is finally steering clear of the trainer's room, and he's had some clutch catches for solid yardage. But he still ranks 94th in the league with 29 catches, 65th with 414 yards.

Both have been good at times. But I'll say it again: Not good enough. Not now.

Are Wallace and Sanders that dependent on Brown to distract opposing defenses?

Are they making the plays they should?

Are they getting open?

I took the broader topic to these two gentlemen after the Steelers' Thanksgiving practice, and suffice it to say, I'm thankful for their candor.

“Are we getting open?” Sanders snapped back with a playful eyeroll to that question in particular. “It's weird to get asked about it when, if you go watch film, we are getting open.”


What about the Chiefs?

“You want to talk Kansas City? Man, people have got to understand that game ... it was raining, the wind was blowing ... people want to measure us against the Kansas City game, but if you go back to the New York game ...”

That's fair. They were open all day against the Giants.

“Yeah, we were making plays everywhere.”

Just like they need to do the next couple weeks, right?

“Yeah, we've got to step up. We've got six games left. We want to make the playoffs, and we've got to bring our ‘A' game. We know that.”

Wallace does, too.

“If our team's going to make this run, we have to step up,” he said. “We've got guys out, but we've got to get it done. We've got to make plays that aren't supposed to be made.”

He grinned.

“Maybe we've got something up our sleeves for Sunday.”

This would be the time.

Cleveland's front seven is stout, but the secondary is banged up and far more logical to exploit. That's on Wallace and Sanders.

Charlie Batch will do better than most seem to be fretting, but he'd benefit greatly from some quality route-running and big yards after catches. That's on Wallace and Sanders.

My money is on the “Money,” even with the reduced exchange rate.

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