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Steelers veteran receiver Cotchery leads by example

| Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013, 10:51 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers receiver Jerricho Cotchery reaches out to make a catch during practice Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013, at St. Vincent in Latrobe.

For some veterans assured of roster spots, there isn't a sense of urgency in the Steelers' training camp at St. Vincent.

Seldom are their hands soiled by the dirty work of contact drills. Occasionally, they are given a breather to refresh their aging legs.

That, however, isn't the case with 31-year-old receiver Jerricho Cotchery.

The 10-year veteran begins his third season with the Steelers feeling far more pressure than last year. He is the indisputable leader of a talented, yet young receiving corps now that 12-year veteran Plaxico Burress has been lost for the season with a shoulder injury.

On Thursday, Cotchery led by example.

He got his hands dirty. He tutored young receivers still trying to recognize NFL coverage schemes.

“I'm trying to help the young guys as much as I can,” said Cotchery, who worked with rookie Markus Wheaton for a half-hour past practice. “I've seen young guys come in, and the expectations are they are the future. I've seen veteran guys not give them advice, and it shouldn't be like that.”

The Steelers' starters — Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders — have played a combined six seasons. David Gilreath, a second-year free agent, is the only other receiver on the roster to have dressed for a regular-season game.

Cotchery began the preseason as a candidate to replace injured tight end Heath Miller as the Steelers' possession receiver. Suddenly, his role has been altered in a rather complex offense in which experience often trumps speed.

“The past of couple of years, I haven't been on the field because these young guys (Sanders and Brown) kept me off the field,” said Cotchery, who has moved back into the slot now that Sanders has moved outside. “I'm locked into the slot, which gives me more of an opportunity to contribute.”

Cotchery, a fourth-round pick of the Jets in 2004, had only 33 receptions the previous two seasons. But his value can't be measured solely by numbers.

Instead, it's the intangibles — leadership, downfield blocking and poise under pressure. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley is likely to involve him more in the passing game, yet he'll be expected to groom several young players — Wheaton, Justin Brown, Derek Moye and Reggie Dunn.

And those young receivers are expected to get far more scrutiny before the roster is trimmed to 75 on Aug. 27.

“I think the young guys understand what they are facing,” Cotchery said. “They came in here with the right attitude to earn a roster spot, but the demands have gone to another level with Plaxico going down.”

Cotchery and Burress were teammates for only three days with the New York Jets before Cotchery was released prior to the preseason opener in 2011.

“We were walking through plays together, but never lined up in a game,” Cotchery said. “So, I was really looking forward to playing with him this season.

“I thought the organization did a good job strategically of placing people in position to help the offense score points. He was a big body that could still get it done, especially in the red zone.”

Burress' experience and size provided an added dimension for a team that struggled mightily sometimes inside the red zone. Ironically, the 6-foot-5 Burress suffered his season-ending shoulder injury during practice while trying to catch a pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger near the goal line.

The Steelers, of course, are looking toward the future. They are not without height on the flanks. Former Penn State teammates – 6-3 Justin Brown and 6-5 Moye – have proven they can catch the ball in the red zone during practice.

Justin Brown and Moye must take advantage of their opportunities in the remaining preseason games, including Monday night's game against the Redskins at FedEx Field. With Burress out, one or both have a realistic shot at making the 53-man active roster for the season opener against the Titans on Sept. 8.

Cotchery might not be the red-zone receiver the Steelers are looking for, but already he's proven an invaluable asset on a team loaded with young receivers.

“I've played in a lot of games and gained a lot of experience over the years,” he said. “I've seen enough things that I can share with them. I've seen so many looks that I know what's going on when a guy lines up over me.

“So, I try to share that with a young guy like Wheaton. If I'm not sharing everything I know — as well as making plays myself — then I'm not helping us accomplish our goal of winning the Super Bowl.”

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