In Sanders' first two seasons with Pittsburgh, he had a total of 50 catches for 664 yards and four touchdowns
Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders #10 of the Denver Broncos runs for an 11-yard gain and is pursued by cornerback D.J. Hayden #25 of the Oakland Raiders after a first quarter reception at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Dec. 13, 2015 in Denver, Colo. (Doug Pensinger, Getty Images)
For many Broncos players, Pittsburgh is unfamiliar. Denver hasn't played in Pittsburgh since 2006. None of the current Broncos were on the team at that time.
But Heinz Field is somewhat of a second home to Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who has played 30 games there. Sanders returns there Sunday for the first time since leaving the Steelers via free agency after the 2013 season. He has many memories about his four years with the Steelers, but he is prepared to begin new ones as a visitor.
"It's unique. The whole stadium is yellow. You have people waving those 'terrible towels' everywhere. They love their team. They love their city," Sanders said.
A homecoming is always a special game. Players often downplay the significance of playing against the team that drafted them, but make no doubt, Sunday's game in Pittsburgh means a little bit more for Sanders. He said he has a number of close friends still with the Steelers and talks with them often. A wry smile emerged on his face at the mention of Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Pittsburgh drafted both in 2010 — Sanders going in the third round, Brown in the sixth.
"We are similar players," Sanders said. "Quick, explosive, good with the ball after the catch, playmakers, punt returners."
Yet both were slighted coming into the league by their lack of size and questions about whether their skills would transfer from a smaller college to the NFL. They have proven all of their critics wrong by vastly outplaying their draft status. (Sanders went to SMU, Brown attended Central Michigan.)
Sanders started slowly in Pittsburgh. In his first two seasons he had a total of 50 catches for 664 yards and four touchdowns. He played a secondary role to Brown and Mike Wallace.
"The offense was completely different," Sanders said. "We had Mike and A.B. I was the No. 3 (receiver) and they weren't slinging it around like they are now."
Moving on to Denver took Sanders' career to the next level.
In his first year with the Broncos, he nearly doubled his best year with the Steelers. Last season he caught 101 balls for 1,404 yards and nine touchdowns. For the first time in his career, he was a full-time starter for all 16 games. Sanders became half the main attraction, forming a dynamic duo with Demaryius Thomas.
Sanders calls Thomas "Batman" and happily welcomes his role of "Robin." He said he is thankful for Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, the Rooneys and the Steelers' fans for supporting him early in his career, but he's exactly where he wants to be.
"I'm just so happy and proud of him and just to see the growth in him over the years," said Tomlin, who played a hand in drafting Sanders. "Not only to become the player that he has become — a Pro Bowl-caliber player — but just a top-notch guy, husband and father. I'm really happy for Emmanuel."
Cameron Wolfe: 303-954-1891, email@example.com or @CameronWolfe
Emmanuel Sanders always had the talent to excel in the NFL, but it wasn't until the wide receiver came to Denver that he began to be fully utilized. A look:
*2015 statistics through 13 games