Steelers have plenty of new faces at wide receiver
There's little doubt the Steelers will lean heavily on the right arm of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during the 2014 season, which kicks off with the opener Sept. 7 at Heinz Field against the Cleveland Browns.
Even though second-year running back Le'Veon Bell finished with a flurry in 2013, the Steelers are convinced they're most effective airing it out. Besides, they have one of the NFL's best receivers in Pro Bowler Antonio Brown.
Brown put up some awe-inspiring numbers: 110 receptions and a franchise single-season best 1,499 receiving yards.
While the spotlight will shine on Brown, there will be plenty attention given his supporting cast. Roethlisberger has spent much of training camp and the preseason adapting to several new faces, including free agent signees Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey, and rookie Martavis Bryant.
Roethlisberger, too, will have a new starter flanked opposite Brown. Markus Wheaton, a second-year receiver who was slowed by a broken finger during his rookie season, seems to have settled in with the offense.
There are questions about how the revamped receiving corps will perform. A year ago, Roethlisberger knew he had a reliable possession receiver in Jerricho Cotchery and sometimes-explosive Emmanuel Sanders, both of whom moved on during the offseason.
If numbers matter, then the Steelers' new cast members will be challenged to duplicate the 2013 efforts of Cotchery and Sanders. They combined for 113 receptions, 1,342 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns.
Wheaton is the only other returning wide receiver (if Derek Moye doesn't make the 53-man roster). He had only six receptions for 64 yards, but his inexperience forced the Steelers to scour the free agent market.
Even as offensive coordinator Todd Haley seeks a balance-passing game that incorporates all of his receivers, Brown is expected to ignite the charge of a potentially explosive offense. The fifth-year veteran readily accepts the responsibility of having the passing game evolve around his enormous talents.
“My actions will speak far more than anything I can say,” Brown said. “A lot of guys respect what I've done. It's time we step up and lead the younger guys and show them what's important.”
“We all look to Antonio as our leader,” Wheaton said.
Brown has evolved as a player. He was far more vocal during training camp as he challenged not only receivers, but defensive backs as well.
“It's exciting and it's always a challenge to be someone everyone is counting on,” Brown said. “It's something I look forward to. It's going to be a process building a great team. We all want to make plays in the air that will help us win games.”
The Steelers' receiving corps did exactly that against Buffalo during the preseason. Brown gathered in a Roethlisberger pass, then streaked 76 yards for a touchdown. And Wheaton caught a 16-yard scoring pass as the Bills were doubling up Brown.
“That one touchdown play was a great example of the things that (Wheaton) has been doing and the things that he's shown the capabilities of doing,” Roethlisberger said. “Hopefully, we'll continue to grow from that.”
“I think he's a hungry guy who's excited about opportunities,” Brown said of Wheaton. “I think he'll continue to make strides and help us win this fall.
“The role of the other receivers will be to the help the team win,” Brown added. “When guys come to double team me, we're going to need guys who can beat one-on-one coverage. They're going to need be the spark sometimes. They'll need to be the security blanket for Ben to count on.”
Receivers coach Richard Mann has taken a particular interest in Wheaton. He ha s watched Wheaton overcome adversity to likely win a spot in the starting lineup on opening day.
“We're playing him at a couple of positions, and he's proven to be a quick study,” Mann said. “He came back last year and played while he was hurt, which tells you a lot about the guy. He's picking up where he left off.”
Wheaton doesn't possess Cotchery's route-running skills or Sanders' speed. But few can match his work ethic.
“I've been working to take over whatever role the coaches want me to assume,” Wheaton said. “It's starting to come into focus a little more. Hopefully, as we go on, my role will continue to expand.”
Mann knows exactly what to expect from Moore. More important, Moore understands perfectly what the coaching staff expects of the veteran receiver, who helped New Orleans to a Super Bowl win over Indianapolis in 2010.
“I'm a do-it-all guy and someone who can play the slot and move outside if they need me too,” said Moore, who in 2013 had 37 catches. “I want to help bring the young guys along. I'll try to be an extension of the coaches on the field.”
Aside from Brown, Moore is the only other receiver with playoff experience.
“It doesn't make my job any tougher, but I have to help get the young guys' minds right,” he said. “I'm trying to understand the nuances and adjustments of the passing game, and hopefully I'll be good to go for the regular season.”
The Steelers are hoping Bryant is ready to take a giant leap forward on opening day.
“I'm still adjusting and getting used to the game speed,” Bryant said. “I'm going to help out with the deep ball and in the red zone. I'm very comfortable with the offense, but I'm still not sure what my role is going to be.”
Mann is confident the Steelers have plenty of depth at receiver. Yet, Brown has to set the pace.
“Absolutely,” Brown said. “I have to set the tempo, but we have a good group of receivers who are capable of making plays.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com.