With a receiving corps that was getting younger in 2011, the Steelers signed veteran Jerricho Cotchery to a free-agent contract. Cotchery joked that he was an "insurance policy" in case the likes of Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders did not develop.
All three developed, and the Steelers did not need to cash in that insurance policy. But, after Wallace signed a lucrative free-agent contract with the Miami Dolphins over the offseason, the Steelers are reaping dividends from their investment in Cotchery.
Elevated to a more regular role in the offense as the No. 3 receiver behind starters Brown and Sanders, Cotchery has been making the most of his opportunities. He is coming off one of the best games of his career against the Minnesota Vikings, He reeled in five receptions for 103 yards in the 34-27 loss.
It was Cotchery's first 100-yard receiving game in more than four years and the eighth of his 10-year career. He has had one 1,000-yard season in his career but is only a few yards off that pace this season.
"I think he's got his mind right," said Brown, the team's leading receiver. "He came to camp in great condition and prepared his body to play more plays, and it's been beneficial for him.
"He's always been a guy who's been capable, a real professional. You can see he's taking advantage of his opportunities right now."
Cotchery has found chemistry with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. He has 15 catches for 248 yards through four games.
That's more than he had in either of his first two seasons with the Steelers.
Cotchery figures to get even more opportunities this week against his former team, the New York Jets. Rookie receiver Markus Wheaton, who had been getting more playing time, will not play after having surgery over the off week for a fractured pinky finger on his right hand.
Wheaton's absence also means Derek Moye, who has not dressed the past two weeks, will likely dress and be the fourth receiver.
The Steelers are ninth in the NFL with 283 passing yards per game.
Cotchery is best among Steelers receivers with 16.5 yards per reception.
"I'm just playing more," Cotchery said. "That's all it is. There are more opportunities, and Ben is doing a great job of creating space for guys. It's him creating space and giving me an opportunity to make plays.
"In my first two years, we had Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders here. There wasn't much opportunity there. That's why I didn't play."
It was nothing with the coaches or anything like that. [It was] a good young group, and I was brought in as insurance for those guys. When Mike left, it created an opening for me to move back into the slot, and it's given me more opportunities."
As the elder statesmen in the group, Cotchery continues to be a valuable resource for younger players such as Moye.
"He's been around the game a lot," Moye said. "He knows what defenses will give you, how to run routes. We were out there [Monday, and] he was breaking down quarters coverage for us, the ins and outs of it and what to expect on certain routes. It's very helpful to have someone like him out there."
Cotchery is 31 and in the final year of a two-year contract he signed before last season. He could be on the way to one of his best seasons as a pro, but his future with the Steelers is uncertain. There could be an opportunity for him to return next season, especially if Sanders signs elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent."
"I feel like I can go beyond this, but that's not anything I've been thinking about at the moment," he said.
"Now it's about just trying to win a game."Steelers
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published October 7, 2013 8:00 PM