Position flexibility a must for Steelers' rookies
By F. Dale Lolley, Staff writer dlolley@observer-reporter.com

PITTSBURGH - He's only been a member of the Steelers for a few months, but rookie wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders might be ready to star in his own American Express commercial.

It would go something like this" "Remember me? I'm the wide receiver who had 235 receptions for 3,791 yards and 34 touchdowns who was selected by the Steelers in the third round. Now, I can't even get recognized at Heinz Field."

You get the idea.

With the excitement created by fellow rookie wide receiver Antonio Brown, a sixth-round draft pick who leads the team in receiving, punt and kickoff returns in the preseason, Sanders has been a forgotten man. He hopes to change that tonight when the Steelers play the Denver Broncos at Invesco Field in their third preseason game.

"We've got a talented wide receiver group here," said Sanders, who has quietly made four receptions for 56 yards.

"But we're all just trying to make this team better. I feel like the only person I'm competing against is myself."

The Steelers plan on taking a long look at both rookies against the Broncos. They plan on doing so with a little twist.

Throughout the offseason and training camp, Sanders has backed up Mike Wallace at the X receiver position, which receives more deep passes. Brown has lined up behind Hines Ward as a Z receiver, which calls for shorter routes and more blocking.

This week, head coach Mike Tomlin decided to flip the two rookies to see how they respond.

"We want to see if they can continue to be position flexible, but also to see if they can handle the responsibilities that come with those positions," Tomlin said.

While Sanders (5-11, 180) has been somewhat quiet in the passing game, his blocking has impressed the coaches.

"That's something I take pride in," Sanders said. "Any time a running back breaks a long run, it's because the receivers did a good job blocking downfield. I wasn't asked to do a lot of that at SMU, though we did have a 1,000-yard rusher when I was there, but I did a lot of it in high school."

Tomlin has noticed Sanders' blocking.

"He has consistently been physical in the run game. He's been finishing plays," Tomlin said. "We are going to slide him over to the Z position to see if he can put his big-boy pads on and block people, and motion, and route adjust - do some of the things that come with playing the position."

Sanders and Brown won't be the only young players who will be tested to see how they fit in on the 53-man roster.

Third-year quarterback Dennis Dixon will see some action with the first-team offense, and rookie Maurkice Pouncey will make his first preseason start at center, in place of Justin Hartwig.

"It's going to be a regular season-type of atmosphere in a hostile environment in front of some great fans. We think is going to be critical in our growth and development in regular-season readiness," Tomlin said. "We're also excited about the many challenges and opportunities we're presenting a bunch of our guys."

Quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich also are expected to receive time with the first-team offense, which will see its most extensive playing time of the preseason.

"You want to play the whole game," Leftwich said. "But (the coaches have) been making good decisions and doing a good job of coming up with enough playing time for us to be fine with."

Maybe, if things go right, Sanders will even make some plays to get additional recognition.

"I'm in the situation where I've been biding my time, waiting my turn," he said. "I can't come to the game, the game has to come to me. When they call my number, I'm going to go out and try to make some plays."

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Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor was fined $10,000 for his fight with wide receiver Hakeem Nicks last week. Both Taylor and Nicks, who was also fined $10,000, were ejected from the game.