PITTSBURGH (AP) — The “Young Money Crew” spent three years growing up together in a corner of the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room, a trio of wide receivers with talent and attitude to burn.
Too much, it turns out, to stick together.
Mike Wallace split for millions in Miami. Emmanuel Sanders traded Ben Roethlisberger for Peyton Manning. Antonio Brown is the only one remaining, the contract extension he signed in 2012 now looking like one of the NFL’s best bargains.
Brown and Sanders will share a field for the first time in two years on Sunday when the Steelers (8-5) host the Broncos (10-3), a reunion that’s not exactly leaving Brown wistful of what might have been if business hadn’t gotten in the way.
“We all had growth in that time, obviously in that time that’s where we were at,” Brown said. “We’re at different times now.”
Then again, Brown can afford to not get caught up in what might have been.
Wallace is toiling in relative anonymity in Minnesota and Sanders is trying to develop a rapport with Brock Osweiler as Manning recuperates from a series of injuries.
Meanwhile, Brown is an All-Pro and the unquestioned leader of perhaps the best receiving group in football along with Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant.
While Brown — who’s second in the NFL in receptions (100) and yards receiving (1,397) — isn’t one for comparisons, there are similarities between the group Brown grew up with and the one he now leads.
Bryant, like Wallace, is the field stretcher, although one that comes in a considerably bigger package at 6-foot-4. Wheaton, like Sanders, lacks Bryant’s quickness or Brown’s seemingly video-game inspired moves but is plenty capable of breaking out when defenses scramble to keep his teammates in check.
Wheaton’s 18.8 yards per reception rank third in the league and he had a career-best 201 yards against the Legion of Boom in a loss to the Seahawks last month.
“We have a competitive, positive group, young and exciting similar to what we had when Mike Wallace and Emmanuel were here,” Brown said.
The numbers are near mirror images of each other. During their peak years together in 2011 and 2012, Brown, Wallace and Sanders caught a combined 26 touchdowns and averaged 14.35 yards per catch. Brown, Bryant and Wheaton have combined for 39 scores and 14.67 yards per grab since the start of the 2014 season.
“I see, me, Mike and AB (in them) and the Young Money Crew has taken over again and the whole world has taken notice,” Sanders said. “Those guys have got speed over there.”
The kind of speed that made it impossible for the Steelers to keep the original crew together.
All that production early in their careers offered Sanders and Wallace the opportunity to sign more lucrative contracts elsewhere. Wallace landed a $60 million deal from Miami in 2013, but has yet to approach the numbers he put up in Pittsburgh.
Sanders, meanwhile, blossomed when he arrived in Denver in 2014, setting personal bests in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns and earning his first Pro Bowl nod. Of course, that tends to happens to guys who make a living catching passes from Manning.
“It’s hard to think about what could have been in Pittsburgh but I’m having so much success over here and so much fun over here,” Sanders said.
Sanders praised the Steelers for “showing me how to be a pro” and is looking forward to seeing the Terrible Towels waving, but is wary of the reception he’ll receive.
“I hope I don’t get booed because it’s all love because I’ve got so much appreciation for that organization,” he said.
Here’s where things get tricky. Sanders created a stir shortly after he signed with Denver when he pointed out he never met a quarterback who prepared like Manning. Some of the Steelers took it as a dig at Roethlisberger, even if Sanders insists that wasn’t the case.
“It was no shot at Ben, it was a shot at uplifting my quarterback now,” Sanders said.
Roethlisberger said he “let it go” though he pointed out Sanders hasn’t made any attempt to contact Roethlisberger to hash it out either.
Not that Roethlisberger or the Steelers appear to care as they take a nine-game December winning streak into their home finale against the AFC West leaders.
Pittsburgh has the NFL’s second-ranked offense, one that appears to be gaining momentum as the playoffs approach and is the only team in the league who has had three different receivers top 150 yards in a game.
How much longer the current group sticks together is unclear. Brown and Bryant have two years left on their current deals. Wheaton has one. If the trio keeps producing at their current rate, finding a way to keep them all happy financially could become onerous. No wonder the Steelers are embracing the now.
“Guys make decisions for themselves,” Brown said. “It’s a business first and guys are going to go where they think they should go to get opportunities.”
NOTES: LB Bud Dupree (back), TE Heath Miller (rib), S Mike Mitchell (shoulder) and TE Matt Spaeth (knee) did not practice on Wednesday. CB Will Gay and LB James Harrison were given the day off.
Three days later, the NFL fined a player as the result of an incident during Sunday’s Steelers-Bengals game.
It wasn’t whom the Steelers might have hoped, though.
Steelers receiver Antonio Brown acknowledged Wednesday he was fined by the NFL for actions during Sunday’s win. He didn’t specify either the amount or reason, but he was flagged for a crack-back block and was involved in a fight — both subject to fines.
“I’ve been getting fined for the last two weeks,” said Brown, who was fined last week for excessive celebration in the win over Indianapolis. “I can’t tell you because my lawyer told me not to disclose it.”
The league didn’t fined Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict for a late and low hit on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Burfict’s agent, Audie Attar, confirmed.
Roethlisberger said on his weekly KDKA-FM radio show Tuesday that he believed Burfict intentionally tried to hit him low during a first-quarter pass rush. While speaking to media at large on Wednesday, Roethlisberger said he was “done worrying about that and got to move forward.”
Multiple Steelers echoed Roethlisberger’s sentiments after several Steelers players had recently expressed their dislike of Burfict’s on-field demeanor.
“I’m not worried about anybody but me,” Brown said.
“Obviously, that was a dirty play,” offensive tackle Marcus Gibert said. “That was last week, and I’m moving on. Obviously, they (NFL) didn’t fine him. So, whatever they are thinking doesn’t matter to us.”
Ben mum on officiating
No penalty was called on Burfict for his hit on Roethlisberger even though hitting a quarterback low inside the pocket is illegal. However, it isn’t illegal if the referee feels that the defender was pushed into the quarterback.
Roethlisberger sidestepped the question of whether he thinks referees are doing enough to protect quarterbacks inside the pocket.
“I guess so,” Roethlisberger said. “You have to be careful on how you answer that, I guess. I might get in trouble.”
Dupree does not practice
Rookie linebacker Bud Dupree (back) was among four Steelers who did not practice because of injury concerns Wednesday.
Veteran tight ends Heath Miller (rib) and Matt Spaeth (knee) also did not practice — but their ailments are carryovers from last week when each did not practice Wednesday but played extensively Sunday.
Safety Mike Mitchell (shoulder) also sat out, as coach Mike Tomlin had indicated was likely. Ryan Shazier was not listed on the injury report, after Tomlin suggested he might be Tuesday.
Heyward nets donation
Defensive end Cam Heyward, who was named the team’s 2015 Walter Payton Man of the Year earlier this month, received a $10,000 donation on Wednesday from Nationwide Insurance on behalf of his charity, the Heyward House.
“I want to thank my teammates for participating in all I want to do in the community,” Heyward said. “I’ve been given a platform to pursue my causes.”
Launched in May, the Heyward House focuses on outreach programs for kids, including after-school programs. Heyward is involved with several other charity organizations, including United Way.
“You can donate your time and you can donate your money,” he said. “But when you can donate both, you’re moving in the right direction.”
‘Black and Yellow’ finale
Pittsburgh native rap artist Wiz Khalifa will perform 25 minutes prior to Sunday’s game against Denver at Heinz Field as part of the Steelers’ “Thank You Fans” festivities for their final home game of the season.
Actor/comedian Billy Gardell — another local product — will lead the pregame Terrible Towel twirl, and former Steelers running back Barry Foster will conduct a meet-and-greet.
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