Ben Roethlisberger excited to work with young group of Steelers receivers
No family vacations are planned for the rest of Ben Roethlisberger’s spring.
As he enters his 16th NFL season, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback expects to be a regular participant at organized team activities, a departure from last year when he showed up to UMPC Rooney Sports Complex for the first voluntary workout and then skipped seven before returning for the final two.
With Roethlisberger minus his favorite target and the only receiver in NFL history to record six consecutive 100-catch seasons, he has new receivers — and their tendencies — to learn. That process began Tuesday and will continue nine more times until a three-day mandatory minicamp begins in mid-June.
“I plan on it,” Roethlisberger said when asked whether he plans to attend the rest of OTAs. “I think it’s important with young guys, with new guys to make sure that we are all on the same page and figuring out exactly what we need to win football games.”
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The Steelers didn’t win enough of them last year, finishing 9-6-1 despite Roethlisberger leading the NFL in passing yards. The offense will have a new look this year. The trade that sent seven-time Pro Bowl selection Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders led to the Steelers signing Donte Moncrief in free agency and taking Toledo’s Diontae Johnson in the third round of the NFL Draft.
The trade also elevated JuJu Smith-Schuster, entering just his third season, into the No. 1 receiver role and gives second-year player James Washington a chance to winning the other starting job. The turnover has been so great at wide receiver that Smith-Schuster and Eli Rogers are the only holdovers from the 2017 OTAs.
“It’s pretty important,” Roethlisberger said about developing chemistry with his receivers. “Whether it’s young guys or rookies or whether it’s guy we brought in from other teams, it definitely is a new kind of challenge. That’s what makes it fun, too. You love the challenge. You love working with the guys. You love communicating.
“That’ll be the biggest thing, I think, is communication and talking to guys, telling them exactly what I’m thinking and asking them. Like today, with (Moncrief), a couple of times I was asking him, ‘Did you feel good about your depth?’ And just working a couple different things out. It’s definitely going to take some big focus.”
Moncrief, a sixth-year veteran, got his first chance to catch passes from Roethlisberger after playing with the likes of Blake Bortles, Cody Kessler and Jacoby Brissett the past two seasons when he was with Indianapolis and Jacksonville.
“I can feel that (chemistry) starting now,” Moncrief said. “I can feel that he’s starting to understand how I run routes and get out of my breaks. It’s only going to get better the more we get to know each other. OTAs are going to be fun. Hopefully, we can have it down by the time we get to camp.”
Replacing Brown’s production, of course, will take more than one player. Brown caught 104 of Roethlisberger’s NFL-high 452 completions last year and was targeted 168 times — or 11.2 per game.
Without Brown around to draw constant double coverage, Smith-Schuster could be pressed to repeat his 111-catch, 1,426-yard season.
“He’s going to have an awesome challenge ahead of him for this year,” Roethlisberger said, “and I think he’s ready for it.”
The rest of the receivers will have to show they are ready, too. Washington will be tasked with accelerating his development after catching just 16 passes for 217 yards as a rookie. Moncrief never has reached 750 receiving yards in a season, and Johnson spent the past three years in the Mid-American Conference.
“I’m excited,” Roethlisberger said. “Even guys like James, you see the work he has done. ‘Crief has done great things. You know what you’re going to get with JuJu. It’s fun because some of the guys I was just eyeballing. Some of the new guys, I got to watch them. I don’t have to throw it to them necessarily, but to watch them work.
“I threw one to the new guy, two to the rookie, so that was fun.”
Roethlisberger plans to throw many more passes to the newcomers this spring as he tries to learn what makes them tick. It will be an extension of the previous week when he invited about 10 wide receivers, tight ends and running backs to his vacation home in Georgia for team bonding.
“I think a lot of people think it’s just about football and understanding the depth and how to throw a ball to a guy,” Roethlisberger said. “But sometimes you have to understand the person, too, and when you can understand the person, you can figure out how they like certain passes and have fun together.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .