By Matthew Marczi
Given the recent revelation that fourth-year Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders is—surprise, surprise—pretty fast in his own right, following the departure of noted speedster Mike Wallace, Sanders had an awfully good reason to account for the wonder that some people experienced as they watched him beat corners down the field in the opening days of training camp. Actually, he had a couple of awfully good reasons.
Speaking to Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider, Sanders—who ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at the Combine in 2010 and has been timed in the 4.3s—said “I think I’ve been fast”, when questioned about his seemingly newfound speed. So why have people not realized it until now?
“I just think I’ve been playing in the slot, so a lot of people really don’t understand how fast I am”, he said. “The slot is more of a controlled position. Outside is more of a speed position”.
So how much has Sanders played in the slot during his first three seasons as a professional athlete? As it turns out, quite a bit, especially over the past two seasons.
As a rookie in 2010, Sanders was able to steal 277 snaps on offense away from others like Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El, but in reality, only 90 of those snaps came as a slot receiver, or just 32.5 percent of his offensive snaps in route. Only 10 of his 48 targets came from the slot, while eight of his 28 catches and 141 of his 376 yards were in the slot. However, as a slot receiver, he averaged 1.57 yards per route run, while from the outside, he averaged just 1.26 yards.
2011, on the other hand, was a tumultuous year for Sanders. He had to have surgery on both of his feet after injuring them in the team’s loss in the Super Bowl. Later in the season, he had to battle a knee injury that caused him to miss time. And most painfully, he also lost his mother.
Altogether, Sanders saw but 230 snaps as a second-year player, as fellow draftee Antonio Brown surpassed both him and Ward, himself earning 427 snaps. 2011 also marked a change on the field for Sanders, however, as it saw him moving into the slot on a much more consistent basis.
In fact, 65.2 percent of his snaps—or 150 out of the 230—came out of the slot, and, unsurprisingly, so did most of his production. Of his 41 targets, 23 came in the slot while 12 of his 22 receptions and 167 of his 288 yards were produced from the inside position. Still, his YPRR in the slot declined to just 1.11, while his YPRR from the outside actually climbed to 1.51.
Last season is the year that Sanders saw most of his work, and most of his production, as Ward retired and Brown also missed a good chunk of time due to an ankle injury. All told, he saw a career-high 421 snaps in route, with 282 coming from the slot for a cool 67 percent of the total figure.
This time, 48 of his 67 targets came in the slot, while 30 of his 44 receptions and 361 of his 626 yards were earned there as well. However, with Sanders moving into the starting lineup and players such as Jerricho Cotchery and rookie Markus Wheaton ready to take those snaps in the slot, Sanders should have a lot more opportunities to get deep in 2013.
For his career, Sanders has been targeted just 32 times 20 yards down the field or more, with 15 of those targets coming just last year. As a rookie, he caught four of 11 deep targets for 113 yards where only five of the targets were deemed catchable. In 2011, the only one of his six deep targeted deemed catchable he dropped. Last year, however, he caught six of the seven catchable balls, amassing 161 yards.
If we do indeed see his downfield targets increase this year, however, it will not be just because of his newfound role. It will also be because of his newfound health. For the first time since his rookie year, Sanders is able to fully participate during the offseason:
In the past two years I’ve had two foot surgeries and I had a torn knee…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.
With his new role, good health, a renewed sense of self-confidence, and a better grasp of Todd Haley’s offense, do not be surprised if we see a new Emmanuel Sanders that we have not quite seen before—one whose performance might buy his way out of Pittsburgh.