Steelers Need WR Emmanuel Sanders To Make Deliveries In The Red Zone

By Matthew Marczi

The overhaul along the offensive line of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013 has already been covered extensively, including by myself, earlier this week. But, of course, there are several other changes to the lineup during the team’s makeover for next season, and the biggest—or at least the most expensive—is replacing wide receiver Mike Wallace, who cashed in his ‘60 Minutes’ notoriety for $60 million with the Miami Dolphins this season.

If it was not already clear that the Steelers intended to act on this replacement by inserting fourth-year receiver Emmanuel Sanders into the starting lineup, the team’s electing to match the one-year, $2.5 million offer sheet signed by Sanders from the New England Patriots, nearly doubling what they had intended to pay the 26-year old, should have made it so.

There are, of course, a lot of questions surrounding Sanders, from his durability to his ability to separate from defenders. After missing five games in 2011, Sanders was actually the only receiver to play in every game this past season when Wallace missed the first game of his career in the meaningless season finale.

As far as his performance during the year goes, he did have career highs nearly across the board. His 44 receptions doubled his total from the previous season, while the 626 receiving yards was a significant improvement upon the 376 from his rookie year. He also averaged a career-best 14.2 yards per reception.

On the other hand, he also had just one touchdown all season, after having four during his first two seasons as a reserve. As a starter, he will, naturally, have to do a lot more work in the end zone, especially with Wallace taking his 32 touchdowns in four seasons with him to South Beach.

This, to my mind, will be the main concern of the offense in 2013; replacing not simply the numbers of players lost or injured, but replicating their scoring. In fact, the Steelers must be even better this season getting the ball into the end zone if they hope to get back to the playoffs.

Tight end Heath Miller, who tied the team lead in touchdowns by matching Wallace’s eight from a year ago, is not even guaranteed to be ready to go for Week 1, and will assuredly require several weeks, if not all season, to get himself back into football shape. Wallace, of course, is gone. That is a lot of red zone targets to make up.

In 2012, Sanders was targeted on just five passes in the red zone, catching three of them for 16 yards and his sole touchdown, which came against the New York Giants. Miller and Wallace combined for 22 receptions on 36 targets for 126 yards and 10 touchdowns, while Antonio Brown—now the team’s de facto number one receiver—caught six of nine passes for 39 yards and four touchdowns.

Sanders was targeted on 75 passes throughout the season, meaning 70, or 93%, of his targets took place on 80% of the field. Why do his targets decrease closer to the goal line? For one, chances are good that he was at best the fourth option on most passing plays in the red zone, especially with Miller being a more dangerous threat on a short field due to his size.

Yet even Jerricho Cotchery and fullback Will Johnson received four targets apiece in the red zone, so there should certainly be more something to such few targets for Sanders close to the goal line.

And there does appear to be some suggestion that this number is an outlier. Despite racking up a career-high 762 snaps on offense, or 68% of all offensive plays, the five red zone targets was the fewest of his career.

In 2011, while playing in just 11 games, Sanders caught four of six passes thrown his way in the red zone, and made good on them for 32 yards and two touchdowns. In his rookie year, he was targeted eight times in the red zone, catching five passes for 33 yards and one touchdown. His 14 targets over his first two seasons was actually just one shy of Miller’s total during that stretch.

So was it simply a matter of a new scheme focusing more on the tight end in close quarters, or is there more to the drop in red zone targets for the player the Steelers intend to turn into a starter? This is just one of the many questions that need answering on the field for the Steelers in 2013, and Sanders must provide the answer.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • steeltown

    They definitely target big bodies when close to the end zone, hell even Leonard Pope caught a pair of TDs last season. Ben and Haley were for sure targeting big bodies like Miller, Will Johnson, Pope etc… This is quite interesting though..Ive been pretty critical of Sanders (as we all have) for only having 1TD last season, but I was unaware that his targets were that limited. I know yds after catch and making plays in the open field is paramount, but red zone ‘targets’ can help to boost a stat sheet..maybe he has problems getting open in the end zone…. or maybe Ben truly favors the big bodies

  • Randy Neff

    I see Bell being a bigger factor in the red zone than Sanders. And it won’t just be the touches he gets in the red zone. He should open space for Haley to exploit.

  • Shea Fahr

    More importantly, I think A. Brown needs to start delivering more in the red zone regardless of what Sanders does or does not do.

  • steeltown

    Agreed. I think Miller is the only guy who doesn’t need to show improvement from last season (simply because he was stellar) but what is encouraging with A.Brown was last season after he returned from his (3week) injury he caught a TD in 4 straight games to close out the season. Lets hope that production carries over to this season

  • cencalsteeler

    I see Miller, Cotch, Johnson, Wheaton and Bell as Bens primary red zone targets. If he needs to extend the play, he’ll then check down to Brown and Sanders. In the red zone, things get tighter. This is where taller receivers have the advantage (How many small receivers get the fade route?). If the play is broken, then Brown and Sanders should be able to create separation and then make their impacts, respectfully.

  • walter mason

    What about Spaeth? Like someone said even Pope caught a couple and maybe we shouldnt forget Spaeth.

  • steeltown

    I bet Spaeth gets himself a TD or two this season

  • cencalsteeler

    Sure, Spaeth as well.

  • Steelhawk55

    We need to see the breakdown of the personnel groupings the Steelers used in the redzone last year to get a more accurate picture of why Sanders was not targeted often. I’d be willing to bet that they used a fair amount of 12, 21, and 22 personnel groupings in the red zone last year. If that is indeed the case, those are all 1 or 2 receiver sets, which would put Sanders on the bench for those snaps. Just my theory as to why his targets were so low.
    Edit: Included in that needs to be Sanders red zone snaps, passing/rushing play snaps, penalty snaps, etc. in order to get the whole picture.

  • SteelSpine

    A bigger factor is Emmanuel is playing for a contract offer at end of this year. A factor an agent sells is how many TDs his WR scored. That more than anything tells me Emmanuel will control whatever Emmanuel can on his end in games this season. (A wrench into that old theory is he watched Mike Wallet had a stinker last season then still got a $30mil signing bonus on open market, sheesh.)

    This is a team sport tho so doesn’t matter if it’s Manny who scores, as long as the team scores TDs. Every team says they wanna score more TDs. Steelers offense last year had more miscues, problems, lack of offensive coordination & insufficient preparation between games, than just putting the ball in Manny’s chest in endzone. Haley has way more things to fix than just Manny in endzone. I think they’re doing what they can to try to fix (OLine personnel & scheme etc).

  • StrengthOfVictory

    Wallace had the advantage of his 2011 highlight reel playing in people’s minds on repeat. Teams knew he never lost his speed, and they saw what he COULD do already. He didn’t need a stellar 2012…only prove he was still fast, healthy, and capable of scoring touchdowns.

    Manny, however, hasn’t had that highlight season. He’s been effective at times, sure, but nothing to hang your hat on. I thought Manny’s rookie year was perhaps his best. He was the clear #3 target and looked to be growing from there. If he wants to play for money, he’d better step his game up.

  • Matt Searls

    Wheaton is 5’11. Which is basically sanders’ height

  • Fu-Schnickens

    I couldn’t agree more. Those who think that Manny is going to hold a candle to Wallace short tenure or Brown or, perhaps, even Cotchery are going to be sorely mistaken. Manny hasn’t really done anything to warrant the big paycheck he just received. If the Patriots hadn’t been so darned desperate, I suspect that we wouldn’t even be talking about Manny needing to step up to justify his pay much less another year.

  • SteelSpine

    All good points Strength & Fu.

  • cencalsteeler

    Yes, Sanders and Wheaton are similar in height. The only reason I mentioned Wheaton, he seems to play a little taller. He goes to the highest point to catch the ball and has nice leaping ability. I think Sanders weakness is not being strong enough to shed some of his defenders and in the red zone might be out muscled. Other than that, they are very similar.

  • Steves

    I like zeroing in on a player when I watch a play. When I zeroed in on Sander he did not finish his break or go to block the DB, thus he dogged the play. If he would have finished his break he could have got the throw to him but he’d rather stop and conserve energy. There is no time to conserve what you are doing when you are on the field. Finish the cut and run your route. The Balls will come your way. If Sanders gives up,,, the Steelers will give up on him.

  • Matt Searls

    i hope wheaton can do that. i didnt see it in his game tape and from what ive read, one of the big knocks on him was his light frame that can be pushed around and his lack of ability to high point the ball. but i hope all that is proven wrong

  • Jazz

    I’ve always like Emmanuel Sanders since the day they drafted him; however, he hasn’t lived up to the expectations of being a #3 WR. Better yet, he hasn’t fully developed into nothing more than a slot receiver. If his agent feels as though he should be paid the type of money Antonio Brown received, let him walk.

  • charles

    With Wallace leaving, the Steelers have lost a big chess piece. That is the ability to stretch the field. When Wallace went deep he always drew help. Heath Miller was the biggest beneficiary of this, drawing linebackers in coverage. We need either Wheaton or Dunn or Howling to catch a couple of long balls early in the season to set the tone. If we can’t stretch the field , it is possible that Cotchery could be the surprise since he is our best reciever in traffic and the middle wil be clogged if we can’t stretch the field. As for Sanders, when it came up with New England talking to him, there were those who had followed him on facebook claiming he was very mouthy and cocksure and that behavior is what we left behind in Wallace.

  • Matthew Marczi

    I’ve thought this myself, but I do have to be fair to him: he caught a touchdown pass in all four of the games he played in after his injury. Barring that, I definitely would have touched on his own lack of production in the most important 20% of the field as well. I just hope he keeps that up, and does even more, because the team is going to need it, unless they can score from the ground more with Bell and the gang.

    Edit: steeltown beat me to Brown’s stats, but yeah, you get my point.

  • Matthew Marczi

    I agree with you there, but unfortunately I don’t have access to all of that information. That’s why I made the comparison to his previous two seasons with respect to red zone targets, as well as referencing Cotchery’s and Johnson’s targets. I do know that they ran 73 passing plays versus 54 running plays.

  • Shea Fahr


  • SteelSpine

    Wow good catch Steelhawk, that’s thinkin.

  • Steves

    Charles – Very good point with Sanders. Only thing is he didn’t have the numbers that Wallace had, just the verbiage he inherited from the jerk. This is the reason why many of us said we should have taken the draft pick and let him go to New England. Besides,, Once a Traitor,, always a Traitor,, especially a LOUD MOUTH that can’t back it up with actions.

    Heath will always have LB on him. DB’s don’t match up well in the trenches. Dink and Dunk are what the Steelers are going to use, to keep Ben on his feet and for him to get rid of the ball.

  • moderatelysane

    Just want to say you’re doing a great job matt. Your content is a great complement to the site. Keep up the good work. Additionally

  • charles

    Agreed. Maybe there is a better way to describe Haley’s offensive philosophy rather than ‘dink and dunk’. I think that what Haley is trying to do is to get Ben to make a quicker read. Read primary, read secondary, then dink or dunk…just get rid of the ball and it won’t really matter how Adams’ pass blocks. That includes what we all know that Ben does not like to do and that is to throw the ball away. Ben would rather hold the ball and let someone break long. Personally, I love the way that Ben plays the game, however, it seems to be where he and Haley need each give a little ground