The Steelers had success running the no-huddle offense in the second half of last season, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was quick to point out this spring that his young receivers had to develop quickly if offensive coordinator Todd Haley was going to give him the authority to run it again this season.
Based on the performance Saturday against the Buffalo Bills in the second preseason game, it appears Roethlisberger’s new targets have picked things up just fine.
The Steelers ran the no-huddle on their first three possessions when Roethlisberger was in the game. They scored touchdowns on their first two and came up a yard short of a first down on their third.
“Looking at it today, there was only one mistake, and it was a very minor one,” Roethlisberger said.
Roethlisberger returned only one receiver with extensive experience in the system, veteran Antonio Brown. Second-year player Markus Wheaton is being plugged into the starting spot that was occupied by Emmanuel Sanders last year. Veteran free agent Lance Moore, signed to replace Jerricho Cotchery, is the new slot receiver. Justin Brown, solidly entrenched as the fourth receiver, was on the practice squad last year.
To make sure his new receivers as well as his new running backs and tight ends were up to speed with the no-huddle offense, Roethlisberger created a training camp quiz this summer to test their knowledge. Next week, the top three “losers” must buy pizza and wings for the entire offense.
“I bring the running backs, receivers and tight ends in, and we give them hand signals,” Roethlisberger said. “They have to write down what the play is called and what route they have.”
Roethlisberger would not say who might be buying dinner. He said five players are vying to stay out of the top three. It’s his way of keeping camp interesting while making sure the new guys know the no-huddle’s signals.
“I feel comfortable doing that because I know we’re going to do [the no-huddle] this year and I want guys to be up to speed on it,” he said.
The Steelers will play their third preseason game Thursday night against the Philadelphia Eagles. Roethlisberger expects to play the first half and would like at least one series of no-huddle.
“I’d like to get a little more road work, see if we can do no-huddle on the road, which is usually a little different,” he said. “Whether we do or don’t, I don’t know. That’s the good part about getting at least one series of no-huddle on the road, because the communication is a little tougher.”
Bryant has to earn it
Rookie fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant has flashed his raw athletic skills in recent practices, but he did not receive any reps with the first-team offense in the first two preseason games. That won’t change, his teammates say, until he develops more consistency in practice.
“He’s got to kind of earn his way onto the first group,” Roethlisberger said. “That’s just the way it is. We have guys right now who are ahead of him on the depth chart that are playing at a high level. He’s going to have to really bust his butt to earn that spot with the first group. If he can prove that he earns it and deserves to be there, then we’ll give him all the reps he wants.”
Roethlisberger said Bryant would be well-served if he watched how Antonio Brown approaches practice.
“He has to get it in his mind that he can help us out and push it hard on every single play like the guys ahead of him are doing,” Roethlisberger said. “If you watch Antonio Brown, he scores on that [76-yard touchdown] play because that’s how he practices. Every day in practice, when he catches a slant, he’s going to score even if he’s touched down. That’s how he practices and plays.
“That’s why it transitions into big things. As a young guy, he needs to keep learning from the veteran guys. I think he’ll do that because he wants to be a great receiver.”
Coaches were hoping the 6-foot-4, 211-pound Bryant would make some contributions in the red zone, but those plans are not likely to take place soon unless he develops more consistency over the final two weeks of camp.
Roethlisberger isn’t the only veteran concerned about the rookie’s practice habits.
“He’s a little raw right now,” Brown said. “He has to settle down in games and fine-tune his game and take practice to the game.”
Starting outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who missed the Bills game with a groin injury, returned to practice Monday. … Offensive right tackle Marcus Gilbert did not finish practice because of a stiff neck and rookie tight end Eric Waters is being evaluated for a concussion. … Long snapper Greg Warren had surgery on his torn meniscus over the weekend and expects to recover in a month. “It could have been a lot worse,” Warren said. “After the surgery, they were very happy with the way things went.”… The Steelers signed offensive lineman Graham Pocic and cornerback Dayonne Nunley. Pocic spent time in the Chicago Bears summer camp, and Nunley, a Gateway High School graduate, participated in rookie camp this past spring. … To make room for them on the roster, the Steelers waived-injured offensive lineman Bryant Browning, who was hurt in the Bills game, and released wide receiver James Shaw.
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.