It is difficult enough for a rookie to learn a new system, to develop a rapport with teammates and perform against the top athletes in the sport. When an injury interrupts the entire process it becomes nearly impossible.
That’s what Steelers receiver Markus Wheaton encountered last season. After playing in the first four games, he missed the next four with a finger injury that required surgery. By the time he returned, it was too late to get back on the same page with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
That was evident when Wheaton failed to look for a pass in a game against the Buffalo Bills that caused Roethlisberger to throw an interception. It was all downhill after that for the former Oregon State Beaver.
Wheaton, the team’s third-round pick last year, did not play the rest of that game, and his participation in the offense was sporadic the rest of the season. He played 10 snaps or fewer in five of the final seven games after Buffalo.
But things change quickly in the NFL. The same player the quarterback and coaches could not count last fall appears poised to make an impact as a starter this season.
For Wheaton, the six months between his first and second NFL seasons were important, perhaps the most important ones of his pro career. He learned from his rookie mistakes, developed a friendship with Roethlisberger and has his sights set on a breakout sophomore campaign.
“I’ve been looking forward to getting this spot and taking on a bigger role in this offense,” Wheaton said.
Roethlisberger took Wheaton and the other young Steelers receivers to California for a week this winter to work out. Wheaton said it was helpful from a football perspective, but he also said that “being out there, being away from football, being able to build a relationship was key.”
After a productive offseason, Wheaton and Roethlisberger are on the same page. The first tangible evidence came in the first quarter Saturday night when he ran an excellent post-corner route and Roethlisberger dropped a perfect pass into Wheaton’s hands. The 16-yard touchdown reception gave the Steelers a 13-3 lead against Buffalo.
“He’s been impressive,” said veteran Lance Moore, who was signed in the offseason as a slot receiver. “That one touchdown play was a great example of the things he’s been doing and the things he’s shown that he is capable of doing.
“It was a great route. He had man-to-man coverage. He was able to win and score a big touchdown. That was the pro catch where you have to drag the toe at the end. That’s what it’s all about right there.”
The Steelers decided not to re-sign Emmanuel Sanders because they believed Wheaton could develop into a dependable No. 2 receiver opposite Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger has been impressed with his development since the end of last season.
“He’s learning and growing fast, and we need him to,” Roethlisberger said. “That’s what’s great about him. He doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He’s busting his butt every day in practice. I grabbed him upstairs [Monday] and talked to him about something he did a little wrong in the game. He had nothing to do with the play, but he was heartbroken that he screwed something up that he probably shouldn’t have. He puts that work in. He’s watched [Brown]. He knows what it takes to be a pro.”
Wheaton had six receptions for 64 yards in his rookie season. He did not make a catch in the final six games, when his playing time decreased.
“He’s more comfortable and understanding things conceptually,” Brown said. “He’s definitely on the same page with Ben, and, anytime you’re on the same page with Ben, there is a good opportunity.”
Wheaton might be the biggest wild card for the offense. Sanders dropped a lot of passes in crucial situations, but he was a productive player with 67 receptions for 740 yards and six touchdowns last season.
The Steelers will be counting on similar numbers from Wheaton. If he does not produce and make opponents respect him, the record-setting numbers Brown posted last season will be hard to match.
“He’s going to be key because, if we don’t have another receiver, people can just watch A.B.,” Roethlisberger said. “We all see what A.B. can do. We need him to step up because we can’t afford for teams to put three guys on A.B. I hope Wheaton is that guy.
“He’s a young guy people don’t know about yet. He hasn’t earned that respect, which is probably rightfully so, because he hasn’t done much. But I’m excited for him because I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people.”
•NOTE — The Steelers officially announced the signing of defensive end Brett Keisel, who is returning for his 13th season. He signed a two-year contract. To make room on the roster for Keisel, the Steelers cut defensive lineman Al Lapuaho.
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.