Steelers' Rookies Earning Masters Degrees

Maurkice Pouncey, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are playing the most difficult positions, and playing them well.

PITTSBURGH – Bruce Arians was going back and forth over which position is the most difficult for a rookie in today's NFL offense.

The subject came up when the Steelers' offensive coordinator was asked about his Nos. 3 and 4 wide receivers and how they were progressing as replacements for the guy the Steelers traded to the New York Jets, Santonio Holmes.

"It's probably the hardest position on offense," Arians said. "There are so many different styles of corners and safeties and things they have to learn. Most have not been exposed to good route running, press man-to-man. The quarterbacks that are coming out that you are dealing with at this level are pretty accomplished, unless you are doing a project."

Arians talked about the development of his former rookie quarterbacks, Tim Couch and Peyton Manning, and how they'd been so well-coached in college.

"But the wide receiver position," Arians continued, before breaking off the thought. "And I will throw the center position in there because we have a freak who came in here and did something that I didn't think was possible – play as well as he has played, made the Pro Bowl and dominated his play – because we are so greedy we ask our center to do so much. And we ask our wide receivers to do so much."

So there it is: Center and wide receiver are the most difficult positions to learn, and the Steelers have rookie Maurkice Pouncey starting at center and rookies Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown as their Nos. 3 and 4 wide receivers.

The Jets have only one rookie contributor, dime cornerback Kyle Wilson, so it would seem to be their advantage.

Shaun Ellis thinks so. The Jets' nose tackle told the Newark Star-Ledger that he believes he'll take advantage of Pouncey.

"Our defense is fairly complicated," said Ellis. "He'll struggle a little bit with the pick-ups on the blitz."

"Oh, really?" Pouncey said when told of the comment. And then he paused. "Well, he's a good player, a real good player."

And the Jets' defense?

"It is complex," Pouncey said. "But practice makes perfect. You don't think I go to practice and shut my eyes, do you?"

As for the rookie receivers, Steelers fans watched Brown break open the last playoff game by pinning a 58-yard bomb against his helmet, a la David Tyree, late in the fourth quarter to set up the game-winning touchdown. It was Brown's third catch of the game for 75 yards. In his last six games, Brown has 17 catches for 215 yards (12.6).

"That catch was a confidence booster," said Brown. "And I'm thankful. It was a great way to start my post-season career."

What did his coach, Mike Tomlin, have to say?

"He told me to keep my feet on the ground and stay humble," Brown said. "He told me there are a lot more plays in the journey."

Sanders, the other rookie receiver, hopes it's his turn to make the big play Sunday because, against the Jets last month, Sanders was Ben Roethlisberger's main target.

With Darrelle Revis locked down on Hines Ward, and Antonio Cromartie covering Mike Wallace, Roethlisberger targeted Sanders a team-high 13 times.

Sanders made 7 catches for 78 yards, and even drew man coverage from Revis in the fourth quarter. Did Sanders consider that to be a sign of respect?

"I was just out there trying to win," said Sanders. "I don't care who's over me, whether it's Deion Sanders, Darrelle Revis, Charles Woodson, any Hall of Famer. If they're standing over me, I'm being paid to go out there and get open and that's what I'm going to do."

Did he get open against Revis?

"Oh, yeah, definitely," Sanders said. "He's a good corner. He stays square. He's got good technique. But at the end of the day I've got to get open."

Sanders finished the season with 28 catches for 376 yards (13.4) and then added 4 catches for 54 yards last week against the Ravens.

Last year during this same week, Sanders was busy opening the eyes of Steelers scouts during East-West Shrine Bowl practices. This week he's wondering if he'll be the prime target in the AFC Championship Game. And if the Jets' top corners are busy with the Steelers' veteran receivers, he will.

"Sounds like a plan," Sanders said. "This game is about matchups. Wherever the best matchups go, that's where the ball needs to go. And I think Bruce Arians has a great game plan."

And Bruce Arians thinks he has some pretty special rookies, no matter how difficult their positions.

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