LATROBE – According to Pittsburgh legend, Ben Roethlisberger called Mike Tomlin last spring to change his coach’s mind about letting Emmanuel Sanders go to New England for third-round compensation.
Not all of it’s true, according to Tomlin.
“Ben did call,” Tomlin said. “But he didn’t change our decision-making process. We wanted to keep Emmanuel all along.”
In two practices this training camp, it’s understandable.
On Saturday, Sanders beat William Gay deep, and then in what appeared to be a clear case of Sanders getting more separation with each step he beat Cortez Allen deep.
Allen said he merely took a bad angle after “I guessed a little bit,” but admitted that “we have speed,” which had been in question after the Steelers lost Mike Wallace in free agency.
“Obviously Wallace is a unique type of speed, but we have speed, and we have great receivers,” said Allen. “We have a group of receivers who can run the whole route tree, and highly effectively. There’s no drop at all in my eyes.”
At Sunday’s practice, the Steelers’ cornerbacks switched assignments. Allen missed practice with what Tomlin called “discomfort” in the right knee, but replacement Gay took Antonio Brown and Ike Taylor shadowed Sanders.
When Taylor gave Sanders enough of a cushion – in apparent respect of Sanders’ speed – Sanders curled in twice and made easy catches for chunk gains.
So the question becomes this: When did Sanders -- who’s averaged 13.7 yards per each of his 94 catches the last three seasons –- get so fast?
“I think I’ve been fast,” said Sanders. “I just think I’ve been playing in the slot, so a lot of people really don’t understand how fast I am. The slot is more of a controlled position. Outside is more of a speed position.”
Sanders said he didn’t seek out some overpriced and overhyped speed coach this off-season, that he was just able to work out on a full-go basis for the first time since his rookie year.
“In the past two years I’ve had two foot surgeries and I had a torn knee,” he said. “That’s all lower body. And for the first time I’m actually healthy. Have I gained some speed? Could that be the reason why? Potentially. When a guy has two foot surgeries, he can’t run. A guy has knee surgery, he can’t run. So this off-season I had a full off-season of working hard. I got to do whatever I want: squat, run as much as I wanted to. And it feels good.”
And it looks good. While no one expects Sanders to run like the world-class Wallace, Sanders’ 4.41 40 (combine time) and his full route tree might, as Allen pointed out, might make him the game-breaker Wallace was.
It should also be remembered that the Steelers won Super Bowl XL with Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El as their starting receivers. It’s unlikely that either player ever broke the 4.5-second barrier in the 40.
Sanders also has the Z position in common with Ward, who often used the term flanker instead. From that position, Sanders is hoping for his first 1,000-yard season, although he points out that “I just want to win. If you win, the rest takes care of itself.”
“The rest” could mean a long-term contract that sets him and his family up for life. But with flashy rookie Markus Wheaton being groomed behind Sanders, that contract might not happen with the Steelers – unless Roethlisberger really makes a high, hard pitch.
“Why did he do that?” Sanders asked of the phone call. “As a quarterback, you love the chemistry that you have with your guy. After losing Mike, I guess he figured that he couldn’t lose two of his guys.
“I’m glad that he came to bat for me because I want to be here. I’m happy to be here. I’ve got one more year – hopefully it turns into something longer – but in this one year I’m dedicated to winning a Super Bowl.”
NOTES – Allen said of his right knee, “I’m good. I’m fine. It’s a day-to-day thing. I’m perfectly fine.” ... Another cornerback, DeMarcus Van Dyke, left practice late with a troublesome left hamstring. ... The Steelers will finally put on pads for Monday’s practice. Said Tomlin: “It’s like the first day of school. It really is. Checking in here and getting on the grass is one thing, don’t get me wrong, but football’s a game that’s played in pads, and tomorrow’s the first day of school.”