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Steelers Notebook

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Rookie receiver Emmanuel Sanders may have “earned his hat” on gamedays for the foreseeable future. After being inactive for three of the first four weeks, the Steelers third-round draft choice out of SMU has been the primary kick-returner and fourth wideout the last three games.

Antwaan Randle El is at the center of some unique play-calling in practice as the team figures out how to use the multi-talented receiver. Randle El could see additional touches as the point man in Pittsburgh’s “Wildcat” formation. The former-college quarterback may have a leg up over other Wildcat stars like Ronnie Brown in that he has maintained his abilities as a passer. Randle El was often used on trick plays in his first stint with the Steelers, with his most famous moment being a 43-yard touchdown pass off a double reverse in Super Bowl XL. Antwaan also served as the team’s emergency quarterback earlier in the season when the team was down to two healthy QBs. All that experience means that the veteran wideout may be more of a threat to pass than other Wildcat quarterbacks, which could mean more success for the formation as a whole.

Randle El has also paired with Emmanuel Sanders in a new-look on special teams in weekly practices. Pittsburgh has already scored once on a trick play during a kickoff return, with Antonio Brown taking a reverse handoff all the way to the endzone on the opening kick of week two’s battle against Tennessee. Fans should keep their eyes peeled for a similar play in the future executed out of the punt return formation. Pittsburgh has been experimenting with using two returners on punts, rather than just one. Generally, Sanders and Randle El have been the two return-men for the play and they line up side-by-side. One man will catch the punt and sprint towards the second player, who will either accept a reverse handoff, or fake it to in order to trick the defense into following a decoy. In situations where the ball is kicked too close to the sidelines for the men to easily take or fake the reverse, the non-catching player becomes a traditional blocker on the play.

Speaking of Sanders, he may have “earned his hat” on gamedays for the foreseeable future. He was inactive for three of the first four weeks as fellow-rookie Antonio Brown served as the team’s return-man and fifth wideout. Brown only registered one catch, but scored on a kickoff return in week two. However, Sanders got the nod in Weeks 6 and 7 and much of that may have to do with his development as a receiver. The team is using him as a return man first, but he flashed his skills as a receiver in that Week 6 game against Cleveland with two big third-down conversions, one of them a 22-yard catch on third-and-thirteen. Don’t write off Antonio Brown though, as he may end up leap-frogging veteran acquisition Arnaz Battle for the fifth-and-final receiver spot at some point in the season.

Ziggy Hood might not be where the team expects him to be. With Brett Kiesel out of Week 7’s matchup against the Miami Dolphins thanks to a hamstring injury, the general thought was that Hood, a 2009 first-round pick, would fill-in as a starter. However, that starting job went to veteran defensive end Nick Eason, which kept Hood in his role as the first-man-up should one of the starters need a breather. Hood was the talk of training camp with his dominance of one-on-one drills, but clearly the coaching staff isn’t ready to end the second-year player’s internship. At a press conference prior to the Miami game, Mike Tomlin said that he “needed to see more from Ziggy Hood.” Now, with Aaron Smith injured, Hood's developement has no choice but to be fast-tracked.

Isaac Redman is living up to the hype as a short-yardage rusher, converting five of his eight chances in third-or-fourth-and-one situations through the first six games. He has also impressed outside of short-yardage duties, as 13 of his 21 total carries would be considered a “success” according to Football Outsiders, who classifies a successful run as one that nets “40% of needed yards on first down, 60% of needed yards on second down, or 100% of needed yards on third or fourth down.” In addition to his nine first downs (which are clear-cut successful plays), Redman mixes in plays like a nine-yard gain on first-and-ten and a six-yard gain on second-and-seven. While those aren’t first-down plays, they are significant runs that help the offense stay in manageable situations. That consistency has made Redman the primary backup for Rashard Mendenhall, and the beneficiary of extra touches should Tomlin look to take pressure off his starter.

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