XLV Preview: Receivers

The Steelers and Packers┬áhave two of the deepest receiving corps in the NFL. What’s amazing is how much change both groups have undergone in one year.

Pittsburgh’s top receivers in 2009:
1. Hines ward: 95 REC, 1,167 YDS, 6 TD
2. Santonio Holmes: 79 REC, 1,248 YDS, 5 TD
3. Heath Miller: 76 REC, 789 YDS, 6 TD
4. Mike Wallace: 39 REC, 756 YDS, 6 TD
5. Matt Spaeth: 5 REC, 25 YDS, 1 TD
6. David Johnson: 2 REC, 9 YDS, 0 TD

Pittsburgh’s top receivers in 2010:
1. Mike Wallace: 60 REC, 1,257 YDS, 10 TD
2. Hines Ward: 59 REC, 755 YDS, 5 TD
3. Heath Miller: 42 REC, 512 YDS, 2 TD
4. Emmanuel Sanders: 28 REC, 376 YDS, 2 TD
5. Antwaan Randle El: 22 REC, 253 YDS, 0 TD
6. Antonio Brown: 16 REC, 167 YDS, 0 TD

Despite losing their top receiver from a yardage standpoint (the embattled Holmes was traded to the New York Jets) and seeing Ward’s production dip, the Steelers clearly had a better receiving corps in 2010 than they did in 2009. They’re deeper than they’ve ever been before.

Evidence? Spaeth’s yardage numbers climbed from 25 to 80 this year, and yet he fell off from fifth to seventh on the list (I only listed the top six). Three young guys — Wallace, Sanders and Brown — made it easy for the team to completely forget about the once-promising and extremely talented Holmes.

They’ve spread the wealth, making things much more difficult on defences. That’s why Ben Roethlisberger had what might have been the best all-around year of his career, despite missing the first four games. In 2009, three players caught 75-plus balls. This year, no one had more than 60 receptions. But defences can no longer key on a clear-cut No. 1 guy, because Big Ben will beat them with Sanders or Brown, both of whom came on late (Brown had just 27 receiving yards prior to December).

And the regular-season numbers don’t do this group justice. Take a look at their receiving leaders in the playoffs:

1. Heath Miller: 7 REC, 77 YDS, 1 TD
2. Emmanuel Sanders: 5 REC, 74 YDS, 0 TD
3. Hines Ward: 5 REC, 39 YDS, 1 TD
4. Antonio Brown: 4 REC, 89 YDS, 0 TD
5. Mike Wallace: 4 REC, 26 YDS, 0 TD

Is this some sort of joke? Wallace, who might be the fastest player in the league, has barely been noticeable. And yet Pittsburgh has still scored 55 points in two games against two of the best defences in the league. That’s dangerous.

Roethblisberger has proven in back-to-back weeks that he’s not afraid to look in the direction of his rookies in pressure situations. And they’ve risen to the occasion.

The Packers have had to deal with massive changes in the receiving corps, too. Let’s do the same comparison we did with the Steelers, just looking at the top four performers in Green Bay.

Green Bay’s top receivers in 2009:
1. Donald Driver: 70 REC, 1,061 YDS, 6 TD
2. Greg Jennings: 68 REC, 1,113 YDS, 4 TD
3. Jermichael Finley: 55 REC, 676 YDS, 5 TD
4. Donald Lee: 37 REC, 260 YDS, 1 TD

Green Bay’s top receivers in 2010:
1. Greg Jennings: 76 REC, 1,265 YDS, 12 TD
2. Donald Driver: 51 REC, 565 YDS, 4 TD
3. James Jones: 50 REC, 679 YDS, 5 TD
4. Jordy Nelson: 45 REC, 582 YDS, 2 TD

Great drafting saved the Packers this year. Finley was supposed to have a huge season, but the tight end suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 5. Lee, who was Finley’s backup and performed well in 2009, dealt with injuries himself and completely fell off the map in 2010.

But Aaron Rodgers adapted to not having an elite tight end and Jones and Nelson — draft picks from 2007 and 2008, respectively — stepped up. By the end of the year, analysts wondered if the Packers actually had the deepest wide receiver group in the NFL.

If you are forced to match up the two teams, Jenning and Wallace are the go-to deep threats for their respective squads, while Driver and Ward are the aging but reliable vets. Jones, Nelson, Brown and Sanders are the wild-cards. Like Brown and Sanders, Nelson took huge strides late in the year and has actually been Green Bay’s second most productive receiver in the postseason.

So there are a lot of similarities in these two groups. The major difference, though, is that Pittsburgh has a healthy tight end in Miller — and he’s been their top receiver in the playoffs. The two-time Super Bowl champion is the reason the Steelers have a small edge over the slightly depleted Packers in a battle of great receivers.

Edge: Steelers.