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After 19 months, Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant ready for return to field

Joe Rutter
| Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017, 8:18 p.m.
Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant beats Ross Cockrell during practice Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017, at St. Vincent.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant beats Ross Cockrell during practice Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017, at St. Vincent.

Under one circumstance, Martavis Bryant's return for the Steelers on Sunday afternoon should look familiar.

Neither Antonio Brown nor Le'Veon Bell were on the field 19 months ago when Bryant last suited up for a football game. That will be the case this weekend when the twice-suspended wide receiver makes his preseason debut against the Atlanta Falcons.

Bell still hasn't reported to training camp, and Brown figures to be a bystander for the exhibition game, leaving recently reinstated Bryant as the team's highest-profile playmaker on offense.

If so, it will be a repeat from Jan. 17, 2016, when the Steelers played the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field in a divisional playoff game. Brown and Bell sat out because of injury, putting Bryant center stage.

Bryant put on a dazzling performance that almost helped the Steelers, who led until three minutes remained, pull out a victory against the eventual Super Bowl champion. Bryant had nine catches for 154 yards and led the Steelers with 40 yards rushing on two carries in the 23-16 defeat.

Now, one season-long suspension later, Bryant is nearing his much-awaited return.

“I'll be a little nervous, but it's football,” Bryant said Thursday afternoon. “I'm not going to shy away from the moment, I can tell you that.”

It was only a few months after that playoff loss in Denver that Bryant's promising career was put on hold when the NFL docked him the entire 2016 season for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

Even when the NFL conditionally cleared Bryant to practice with his teammates in the offseason, he didn't face an easy path to the field. Bryant had to sit out almost two weeks of training camp practices while the league determined whether he had fulfilled requirements as condition of his reinstatement.

Since the last time fans saw him play, Bryant has added muscle to his 6-foot-4 frame. He also said he has matured as a football player as well as a person.

“I'm more wiser, I know more stuff,” he said. “My route running is better. If my routes are better, hopefully it will show on the field for me.”

Without Bryant last season, the Steelers lacked a reliable complementary piece to Brown. Sammie Coates, Cobi Hamilton, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Markus Wheaton combined for 48 catches and 834 yards. By comparison, Bryant accounted for 50 catches for 765 yards in 11 regular-season games prior to his suspension.

“I just want to get back into doing what I used to do,” Bryant said. “I'm not focused on going outside what I do. I'm going to focus on running my routes, being a deep threat, running short routes, just running and catches and having fun doing it.”

On the depth chart released Wednesday, coach Mike Tomlin inserted Bryant as the starter opposite Brown. That will affect receivers such as Justin Hunter, the darling early in the camp, and Coates, the latest receiver to return from injury.

Coates, though, welcomes Bryant's return even if it didn't look that way after the NFL Draft when they got into a Twitter spat over the selection of USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in the second round.

“You always want to see someone do great in this league no matter what the situation is,” Coates said. “You never want to see somebody fail.”

Looking back on his first padded workout, Bryant said he was “real tired.” With three more practices accrued, he sees his endurance and “football shape” increasing incrementally, and he is awaiting the test Sunday against the Falcons when he can finally gauge his performance against an opposing defense.

Asked whether he needs much game competition to prepare for his first regular-season game in nearly two years, Bryant said, “I have no clue. I haven't played football in a year, so we'll see on Sunday.”

For the second time in his career, Bryant will be returning from suspension. He also missed the first four games of the 2015 season.

“It's hard to believe (the time is here), but the work is never done,” he said. “I've got to continue to work.”

The stakes Sunday mean little collectively for the Steelers as they prepare for the regular season, but they mean everything individually to Bryant.

“I'm definitely more appreciative,” he said. “I've put a lot of hard work in to get back into it, so I definitely won't take it (for granted) any more.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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