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Steelers' 2010 draft picks paying immediate dividends

| Saturday, Jan. 22, 2011

Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders were studying their playbooks one night in early August when Ike Taylor stopped by their dorm room at St. Vincent College.

It was more than just a social call, as the veteran cornerback told the rookie wide receivers that the Steelers would need both of them in the upcoming season.

Taylor's talk proved prophetic.

Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey may be the headliner of a strong 2010 draft class, but Sanders and Brown have also emerged as key players in the Steelers' pursuit of a seventh Lombardi Tophy.

Each has earned the trust of coach Mike Tomlin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. And that could be significant Sunday, when New York Jets cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie try to take Hines Ward and Mike Wallace out of the Steelers' passing game.

"This could be a challenge for both Mike and I," Ward said of getting open in the AFC Championship Game. "When we are not getting looks, the younger guys, Emmanuel and Brown, they have got to step up big for us like they have all season and make plays."

Brown made one of the bigger ones of the season last Saturday when he used his helmet to help secure a 58-yard pass from Roethlisberger in an AFC divisional playoff game at Heinz Field.

Sanders hasn't done anything quite as dramatic, but he has shown steady improvement since supplanting Antwaan Randle El as the Steelers' No. 3 wide receiver.

The two close friends had been competing for one active roster spot until December — when Tomlin decided that he could no longer have one of them watching in street clothes.

"I anticipated that at some point, either due to the quality of play or injury, that there would be a point in time when we would need both of them," Tomlin said. "I didn't necessarily tell them that, but I anticipated it."

And to think Sanders and Brown had been fretting about simply making the team when Taylor paid them a visit during training camp.

"As a rookie, you've got so many emotions, and you don't know what's going on," Sanders said. "For him to tell us that, it definitely motivated us."

Added Brown: "It gave me tons of confidence. I just believed in Ike."

Recent history didn't support Taylor's assertion that both would help the Steelers this season as Tomlin has grudgingly relied on rookies since becoming the coach. That explains why a punter and a linebacker who played solely on special teams won the Joe Greene Award, given to the team's top rookie, in his first two seasons as head coach.

Then there is the difficulty of the transition for wide receivers from college to the NFL.

"Probably the hardest position on offense because there are so many different styles of corners and safeties they have to learn," Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. "Most have not been exposed to good route running, press man-to-man (coverage)."

Sanders and Brown have benefited from learning under veterans such as Randle El and Ward, who owns just about every receiving record of note in Steelers history.

Sanders admitted to feeling a bit in awe after he made the Steelers and realized he would be playing on the same team as Ward.

"And the next thing I thought was how could I get better from him?" Sanders said. "I got under his wing and tried to see the game how he sees it."

Sanders has proven to be a quick study, and the Jets can attest to his progress. His season high in catches (seven) and receiving yards (78) came in the Dec. 19 loss to New York.

He broke free late in the game — and might have caught Roethlisberger's overthrown pass for a touchdown had a defender not grabbed his jersey.

Brown's David Tyree-esque catch last week against the Ravens is a big reason why Sanders and the Steelers get another crack at the Jets.

It also validated how the Steelers have brought along two of their prized rookies this season.

"We're not calling on Emmanuel every single play," Roethlisberger said. "We're not calling on Antonio every play. It's when we call on them they answer the bell."

Just as Taylor told them they would do.

Additional Information:

Bumper crop

Early returns from the Steelers' most recent draft class have been mostly positive, as a handful of rookies have emerged as key contributors. Here is a look at the Steelers' 2010 draft.

Maurkice Pouncey, C (1st round): Has started every game and made the Pro Bowl, the first Steelers rookie OL to do so since the 1950s.

Jason Worilds, OLB (2nd): Plays primarily on special teams because of a couple of guys named James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.

Emmanuel Sanders, WR (3rd): Four catches in the Steelers' first eight games; 28 in the nine that have followed

Thaddeus Gibson, OLB (4th): 49ers claimed him in early September after Steelers were forced to waive him because of an injury situation

Chris Scott, OT (5th): Hasn't dressed in any games after spending first part of the season on physically unable to perform (PUP) list.

Crezdon Butler, CB (5th): Has dressed for just four games, but Steelers like his potential.

Stevenson Sylvester, LB (5th): Has made an impact as a special-teams player.

Jonathan Dwyer, RB (6th): Has only dressed for one game, gaining 28 yards on nine carries in regular-season finale at Cleveland.

Antonio Brown, WR (6th): Late-round gem turned in two of the biggest plays of the season: an 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown at Tennessee and a 58-yard catch last Saturday against the Ravens.

Doug Worthington, DE (7th): Only player from the draft class not to spend any time on 53-man roster; spent latter part of season on Tampa Bay's practice squad.

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