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Steelers' Sanders faces uncertain future

| Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, 9:40 p.m.
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Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders makes a catch during a game against the Minnesota Vikings at Wembley Stadium on September 29, 2013 in London.
Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (88) holds his head as his team loses to the Chicago Bears in the fourth quarter of a game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013.
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Emmanuel Sanders, 2013 Steelers headshot

With the Steelers off to an 0-4 start, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders doesn't appear nearly as concerned about his future as he was when training camp began nearly three months ago.

Sanders began the season with the intent of proving he's among the NFL's elite pass-catchers. He wasn't willing to settle for being the No. 2 receiver behind Antonio Brown, who was elevated to No. 1 when Mike Wallace signed a five-year, $60 million deal with Miami.

“I don't consider myself a No. 2. I just like to win,” Sanders said. “I just like to play football. I know, at the end of the day, I can be a No. 1 in this league if the opportunity comes.”

The Patriots, thin at receiver after a series of injuries, extended that opportunity to Sanders earlier this year when they presented him with a free-agent offer sheet. Instead, he signed a one-year restricted free agent tender worth $2.5 million with the Steelers in April.

Sanders insisted again Wednesday that he rather stay in Pittsburgh. He, too, would rather have a deal settled sooner than later. The Steelers, however, do not negotiate with players during the season.

“I try not to get caught up in (contract talks) too much,” said Sanders, who averaged 14.2 yards on 44 catches last season. “As far as the contract, it would be nice. I have a lot to prove, especially since the (foot) injuries.

“I hope we can work out something. I want to go out of here on top — winning the Super Bowl. Who knows what next year will hold. I'm not surprised not to have a deal. It's a business.”

Sanders, in his fourth season, insisted any pending contract negotiations after the season concludes aren't a distraction.

“I have a short-term memory,” he said “I live in the moment while other people live for the future.”

Sanders is on pace for 80 receptions and nearly 1,000 receiving yards. But if the current trend of increasingly targeting tight end Heath Miller and rookie Markus Wheaton persists, Sanders isn't likely to reach those numbers.

The SMU product had 12 receptions in the first two games but has only eight since Miller's return two weeks ago.

“I don't want to make it about the numbers game,” Sanders said. “When I came in here as a rookie, I came with a chip on my shoulder because I wanted to be on the field every down. When I saw Mike (Wallace) out there, I wanted to be out there making plays.”

The Steelers still are counting on Sanders to be a playmaker this season, considering Brown is likely to continue to draw double coverage and gimmick defenses that often leave Sanders in man-to-man matchups.

“There is no doubt that (Sanders) is one of the most dangerous receivers in the league,” said Brown, who along with Jerricho Cotchery leads the team with two touchdown catches. “He's been patient, and he's going to get his chances.”

So far, Sanders and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have been unable to make the connection on the long ball. He has receptions of 36 and 43 yards, but several times he's been inches away from coming up with the big, momentum-shifting catch.

A usually confident Sanders is frustrated that he's been tantalizingly close, yet so far from delivering on the promise that he would make defensive backs respect him as they do Brown.

“I have allowed myself to step up to the next level to be a big-time receiver,” he said. “It's the mentality of a wideout. Whoever teams put up against me, I'm going to beat him.

“If someone plays me man, it's disrespectful for them to think I can't beat a guy without safety help. It's my job to exploit them if they treat me a like a second- or third-tier guy. I'm sure (offensive coordinator) Todd Haley will see that because this league is all about matchups.”

Now, Sanders' focus has shifted. He still wants to be a primary target for Roethlisberger, but he's desperately hoping to become a difference maker in an effort to help the Steelers realize their long-shot playoff aspirations.

As the Steelers prepare to face the New York Jets in East Rutherford, N.J., next Sunday, they are feeling increasingly confident about the passing game. Brown leads the team with 32 receptions and Cotchery's role has expanded.

Sanders is anxious to prove he be counted on, too. The challenge, however, is remaining patient while the Steelers try to reel in their AFC North rivals who have buried them in the division cellar.

“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.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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