Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley has been a coach in the NFL since 1997. When he was the coordinator in Arizona from 2007-08 he had Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin in the same receiving corps.
So when Haley addressed reporters Tuesday at minicamp and called this group of Steelers receivers “as deep a group as I have ever been around from top to bottom” it raised a few eyebrows.
The Steelers have a Pro Bowler in Antonio Brown, but the rest of the group includes two new free agents, three second-year players who are not yet established and a rookie.
Veteran free agent Lance Moore is expected to play in the slot, which was vacated when Jerricho Cotchery signed with Carolina. Darrius Heyward-Bey also was added in free agency, and Markus Wheaton, Derek Moye and Justin Brown enter their second seasons. That trio has combined for eight NFL receptions. Martavis Bryant, a rookie, was the lone receiver added through the draft.
After Brown, there is not a lot of name recognition, but Haley is impressed with their work.
“There are some pretty good football players who probably won’t make the team,” Haley said of his receivers. “That means you have some good players. Lance Moore is a sharp, smart guy who has picked things up quick. Markus Wheaton and Justin have been here and you can see they have a year under their belt. Those are the two guys I saw during the offseason. They’d be in there working. They have a different confidence level in what they’re doing and what we’re doing.”
The new receivers have had a crash course in the no-huddle offense this spring. The no-huddle was a big part of the second-half turnaround last season, and the coaches wanted to lay a strong foundation this spring before training camp.
“We’ve been working hard at it,” Haley said. “That’s going to be part of what we do. We don’t want to just give it lip service. We’ve put a lot of time and effort into it and we’ll continue that in minicamp. You can kind of see the guys getting comfortable and making progress. [Ben Roethlisberger’s] comfort level with them is coming along.”
The other big emphasis this spring has been the run game. The Steelers ranked 27th in the league in rushing last season.
“We have to run the football better, which we started to do in the second half of the season,” Haley said. “That was part of the reason for us having more success. I believe we will. Running the football, whether we’re huddling or no-huddling, is something we’ll do better, a lot better. That will only help what we’ll be able to do.
“I’ve said this before. I believe we’ll be able to throw it with anybody. When you can throw it as well as we did with the run game not exactly where we wanted it tells you we have a chance to be good. When you’re running the football it makes throwing a heck of a lot easier. Running the football is a big part of what we have to do going forward.”
Mann high on Bryant
Receivers coach Richard Mann believes Bryant will have a role on offense as a rookie. The staff wanted to draft a tall receiver with speed to stretch the field and Bryant remains the only player on the roster who fits that bill.
“I think he’s going to contribute, I really do,” Mann said. “He’s got good speed, he’s a big guy and he can run and catch, that’s the bottom line.
“Martavis is a big guy; he’s different from what we’ve had. As far as with the length, we feel like we can utilize his talents in the red zone. He’s got a big reach. He’s got good speed, so we can use him in various ways.”
If it wasn’t obvious that first-round pick Ryan Shazier would be in the starting lineup when he opened his first spring practice with the starters, it should be now. Linebackers coach Keith Butler reiterated the team’s commitment to playing a rookie in the middle of their defense.
“Normally, I’m not a big guy with rookies,” Butler said. “In fact, I don’t like to play rookies because in defensive football there are two things that get you beat. One of them is missed tackles and the other is mental mistakes.
“And normally when you come and try to learn this defense it’s going to take you a little while to do it. [Shazier] understands concepts and he picks things up a little easier than most rookies have. We have a lot of new faces on defense, so we don’t have a choice whether we can play him or not. We have to play him and we have to be faster and we have to win.”
Noll an influence
Even though he retired from coaching 23 years ago, the late Chuck Noll’s influence is felt on this Steelers staff. Haley, for instance, recalled spending time with Noll’s Steelers when his father, Dick, served as the team’s director of player personnel from the time Todd was 4 years old.
“I sat in there [the locker room] before the games and at halftime and got to see his coaching at training camp,” Haley said. “In a secondary way it had a great influence on me becoming a coach in the NFL.”
Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake played for Noll from 1989-91 and considers himself a Noll protege of sorts.
“He exuded confidence,” Lake said. “He didn’t speak very many words, but when he did you listened.”
New offensive line coach Mike Munchak played against Noll’s teams as a member of the Oilers.
“I heard those stories when I came in, drafted by the Oilers,” Munchak said. “Everything goes through Pittsburgh, I heard that from the day I walked in there in ’82. It seems like it’s still that way. They built a dynasty here.”
Munchak, whose Houston teams finished second to the Steelers three times in the 1970s and lost to Noll’s squads in the 1978 and 1979 AFC championships, also got a brief chance to experience Noll up close when he played in the 1985 Pro Bowl, in which Noll coached.
“Even though I was only around him a week, just seeing how special he was and how the guys responded to him,” Munchak said. “Great coach, great man and obviously he’s done some special things for Pittsburgh. I’m sure he’ll be very fondly remembered.”
Staff writers Sam Werner and Alex Nieves contributed. Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.