DENVER — Emmanuel Sanders always gives everything he's got when he's on the football field. That much is clear anytime he plays.
But when the opponent is the Pittsburgh Steelers, something just feels different.
That much was evident in 2015 during his first game against his former team in 2015. He recorded a career-best 181 receiving yards, and the regular-season sequel in 2018 didn't disappoint, either.
Sanders' seven receptions for 86 yards and a touchdown — including five for first downs — helped ensure the Broncos' offense could capitalize on its scoring opportunities, and doing so against Pittsburgh made it even sweeter.
"It's fun," Sanders said. "I like beating them more than I like playing them. We were able to get the job done today. It felt good."
Though he was subdued postgame, Sanders was far more animated during the game. He was his usual self, fiery and demonstrative, and his teammates could feel that energy.
"I definitely see that [energy], and it definitely drives us as a team — his spirit, his soul," Bradley Roby said. "I think that especially today, you could feel he wanted it bad. And we all wanted it bad, but when everybody collectively can just get that energy up, that's when good things happen."
Good things happened all night for the Broncos when Sanders touched the ball, as the team scored on three of the four drives in which a Sanders catch moved the chains. But perhaps no play was as important as when he pulled in a big catch on the Broncos' first play after Chris Harris Jr. intercepted a Ben Roethlisberger pass in the middle of the third quarter.
After beating the cornerback on a route deep down the right sideline, he fell to the ground with a 38-yard gain as the defense recovered to touch him down. A play after that, Sanders caught a 5-yard touchdown pass, evening the score at 17.
That kind of reliability is a welcome trait for anyone on the team, but particularly so for Case Keenum, who has needed Sanders to be at his best on a weekly basis in Keenum's first year with the team.
"He's brought it every game," Keenum said. "It's just kind of more of the same with him. He's a guy that you can count on at any time. I would go into battle with him at any point. I have so much trust in him right now. He made some huge plays for us today and we were just a tick off. I don't know. I need to give him a better chance to make some of those plays. I thought he brought it today. It was fun to watch him play."
For Head Coach Vance Joseph, it wasn't just fun watching Sanders play. From his perspective, it's also about how he works and how he works with the rest of his position group. All that combined — and doing those things consistently — is what makes Sanders such an important part of this team.
"It was a big game for 'E' tonight, obviously being an ex-Steeler, and he wanted to win this one really badly," Joseph said. "He was our [game-day] captain and he always makes plays to help us win, but his enthusiasm all week and leadership with that young room — we've got five receivers on this team and four are first-year [players] and rookies. He's got a room where he's leading guys and every day he's the same guy."
So even though this game carried a bit more a personal weight for him, don't expect any less than this kind of performance from Emmanuel Sanders. It's what everyone should be used to by now.