Tall, young wide receivers catching on with Steelers
August 5, 2014 12:00 AM
Martavis Bryant turns the corner during workouts Monday at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.
The Steelers' Justin Brown carries the ball during rookie minicamp on the South Side in May.
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Through 1½ weeks of training camp, not even GoogleMaps can decipher the routes Steelers wide receivers will take from here through the depth chart to open the regular season.
They will start out on Antonio Brown Boulevard, but, after that it’s a map with different directions. Lance Moore in the slot? Probably, but young Justin Brown might have a say in altering that assumed plan. Markus Wheaton as the No. 2 man on the outside? Maybe, but rookie Martavis Bryant has a month to change their minds there too.
Bryant and Brown were given more opportunities Monday not only to show their coaches what they can do, but also to get playing time with Ben Roethlisberger and start building some rapport with the veteran quarterback.
Bryant’s coaches told him Monday morning he would take his first snaps with Roethlisberger.
“I feel good about it,” Bryant said before practice. “I just want to go out and execute and make sure I know what I’m doing. They want to see how much I know so I just have to go out there and make sure I do my best, try not to stress so much, just have some fun.”
He did not get many, but the five snaps he had were five more than he had in training camp previously with Roethlisberger.
Brown, in the meantime, practiced as the No. 1 slot man ahead of Moore. He took most of his snaps with Roethlisberger at quarterback as the competition heats up between him and the veteran receiver acquired this year in free agency.
Bryant and Justin Brown have several things going for them as they compete with others to get that pecking order down after Antonio Brown. They are young, they are tall and they have practiced well.
Other than 6-foot-5 Derek Moye, Bryant (6-4) and Justin Brown (6-3) are the tallest wide receivers in camp. Being tall does not lead a receiver to the front of the pack as Limas Sweed once found out, but it helps if other things come together.
Bryant, for example, had some dazzling catches over the weekend, so he earned those reps Monday with Roethlisberger.
“It’s come down to knowing my job, knowing my assignments, which I do know mostly everything,” Bryant said. “They want to make sure I’m 100 percent confident in what I’m doing and get the trust of Ben and the coaches that they can trust me in the game.”
Justin Brown was the “tall” receiver of the 2013 draft class as a sixth-round choice. He spent his rookie season on the practice squad after Moye, his former Penn State teammate, beat him out for the fifth and final wide receiver roster spot.
They are competing again to make the roster, and Brown has made an early impression. He made another impression in a way in which he wishes he might not have last week. His nose was broken when his helmet crashed into it while blocking Thursday. He missed practice Friday to have surgery on his nose but was back in full drills Saturday.
“I don’t want to waste any opportunities or waste any practices,” Brown said. “I figured I should try to come back as fast as possible.”
Brown played in the slot at Penn State (where Moye played on the outside) but after he transferred to Oklahoma for the 2012 season, he played strictly on the outside. They have moved him around in practices, but the Steelers want to see him as a slot receiver, where the 5-9 Moore also resides. There’s room for both Moore and Justin Brown inside when the Steelers deploy four wide receivers, but they do not do that nearly as often as when they go to three.
“Going to Oklahoma, I was outside the whole time and kind of lost a little bit of it,” Brown said of playing the slot. “Now I’m working my way back into it, so I’m getting more comfortable with it.”
There’s more to playing in the slot than on the outside. There is more traffic, more bodies, more reads, etc.
“You never know who you’re going to run your route off, it could be a back, it could be the safety, it could be the nickel back, you never know,” Brown said.
It also helps that the quarterback can see you more readily when you stand 6-3. Right now, 6-5 Heath Miller and other tight ends are the only tall inside targets.
It also helps that Brown and Bryant are familiar with the no-huddle offense, having played in them at Oklahoma and Clemson.
“There’s not much difference,” Bryant said. “It’s more relaxed and calm here compared to college because in college we had to go faster than this, so this is nothing new.”
Yet for Roethlisbeger and the Steelers, both wide receivers are new, and they’re making their play for more prominent jobs.
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