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Steelers get ready for hard offensive challenge

| Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012, 7:56 p.m.
Christopher Horner
Steelers receiver Antonio Brown celebrates after taking a hit for a first down during the fourth quarter against the Jets Sunday September 16, 2012 at Heinz Field. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

The Steelers' wide receivers are hoping Halloween arrives a little early.

Trick or treat bags in hand, they apparently can't wait for Eagles rookie nickel back Brandon Boykin to open the candy drawer and start passing out goodies. Especially touchdowns.

With the Steelers' passing game producing at a record level through three games — Ben Roethlisberger is the NFL's No. 2-ranked quarterback — wide receivers Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders face a challenging matchup Sunday in Eagles cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

Asomugha is 6-foot-2, 210 pounds and, to Wallace, might be the NFL's best active cornerback now that Darrelle Revis of the Jets is hurt. Rodgers-Cromartie, who already has three interceptions, is 6-2 and 180. Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie use their size to their advantage by pressing receivers at the line of scrimmage.

“They're really athletic guys,” Wallace said. “They get after it every game, so you've got to keep your head on a swivel and just be ready.”

But it is Boykin who appears to offer the best opportunity for targeting by a deep and productive receiving corps. At 5-9, 182, he isn't as physically imposing as Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie, and the fourth-round pick from Georgia nicknamed “Bam” has played only four NFL games.

Brown is already circling Boykin's name, memorizing his No. 22.

“I don't know where ‘The Candy Bar' came from,” Brown said when asked about his confectionary-sweet description of the rookie.

“They've got two Pro Bowl-productive corners, so we're looking for some opportunities.”

Boykin appears to offer the most tantalizing matchup for Roethlisberger, who averages 301.3 yards per game passing. But since Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie are more likely to cover Wallace and Brown, slot receiver Sanders could draw Boykin.

Sanders seems as confident as Brown that there is yardage to be gained against the Eagles (3-1), no matter how many Pro Bowlers man their secondary.

“He's a rookie, he's finding his own, he's playing football to the best of his ability,” Sanders said of Boykin, not exactly flattering him with praise.

Boykin has been targeted 20 times, allowing nine catches for 103 yards.

“This game is about mismatches, and that's what it is,” Sanders said. “Right now, honestly, all across the board matchup-wise, Mike can definitely take Nnamdi Asomugha. We definitely could take any one of their corners. It's all about finding the right matchup for the defensive scheme they're playing.”

During the Eagles' 19-17 win Sunday over the Giants, Boykin sometimes lined up against elite receiver Victor Cruz. The result? “The Giants threw the ball to Victor Cruz,” Sanders said.

The more-experienced Wallace isn't talking as confidently as Brown and Sanders about finding weaknesses in the Eagles' defense.

“(Boykin) is getting better every week,” Wallace said. “I've seen him make some plays on tape, I've seen him do well. I think he has some potential. He's inexperienced, but he's not going to let us go out there and make plays all over the field. He's going to be ready to play. But at the same token we're going to be ready, too.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at arobinson@tribweb.com.

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