Steelers no-name receivers play key roles behind Antonio Brown
January 12, 2017 12:00 AM
Steeler Demarcus Ayers celebrates his touchdown against the Browns earlier this month at Heinz Field. Ayers is one of a trio of receivers with practice squad credentials who have helped the team survive injuries at that position.
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
After Antonio Brown, the Steelers group of wide receivers falls somewhere between faceless and nameless. They could spend their off day on a boat off South Beach, tweet out a photo and only their families might notice.
Yet, these mostly inexperienced receivers carry an important role into an AFC divisional-round playoff game Sunday at Kansas City, Mo. If the Chiefs want to try to shut down Brown, the rest of them need to come to the rescue.
Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton and rookie Demarcus Ayers did not have a catch in an NFL game before this season. Rogers spent 2015 on injured reserve, while Hamilton and Ayers spent time on the practice squad this season before getting the call to join the roster.
All three have played roles in helping the Steelers down the stretch.
They have picked up the slack for Martavis Bryant, Marcus Wheaton, Sammie Coates and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Bryant, who caught 50 passes last season, is under NFL suspension and hasn’t played this year. Wheaton, the starter opposite Brown the past two seasons, played just three early season games and went on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. Coates has done little as a receiver since his hand was damaged in the fourth game of the season. Heyward-Bey missed six games with a sprained foot and caught just six passes this season, although he’s now back healthy.
“We pride ourselves on if somebody gets injured or something happens, we don’t have to look outside our room,’’ Heyward-Bey said.
The loss of Bryant and Wheaton could have been devastating to the Steelers passing game. They combined for 94 receptions last season. They also lost tight end Heath Miller, who added 60 more catches. Those are 154 receptions that disappeared from the offense.
But Rogers replaced Wheaton in the slot and has 48 receptions. Hamilton replaced Coates who had replaced Wheaton and caught the winning touchdown pass in the season finale against Cleveland, his second score. Ayers and Hamilton each had important catches on the last-minute drive that beat Baltimore to win the AFC North Division. Ayers also had two catches in a playoff victory Sunday against Miami.
The Steelers have a history of finding receivers after the first round — Hines Ward, Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Bryant, Wheaton, etc. — but none of them was discovered off the practice squad like Rogers, Hamilton and Ayers.
“I just think the Steelers do a good job of developing guys and giving guys the confidence,’’ Hamilton said. “Guys have the mindset that if they come here to work, they feel that kind of energy and the persistence.The young guys here really embraced it.”
Hamilton, who played at Arkansas, spent 2013 on Cincinnati’s practice squad and three different teams’ practice squads in 2014. He was released by the Dolphins before the 2015 season and spent that season out of the game. He signed with the Carolina Panthers a year ago, was released by them July 25 and signed with the Steelers two weeks later, after camp began.
He was on their practice squad until Oct. 15 and since then he has started eight games. Ayers was signed off the practice squad in December and played in his first NFL game Christmas Day against Baltimore. Before he ever caught a ball, he drew a 35-yard pass interference penalty against the Ravens that put the Steelers in position to score a touchdown to bring them within 20-17 of Baltimore with 11:41 to play in the game.
“Take a look at the guys you just mentioned,” Ayers said of the no-name receivers. “I think all of us are hungry, all of us are looking for more opportunities down the line.”
The Big Three — Roethlisberger, Brown and Le’Veon Bell — still make the Steelers offense go, but the role players at receiver become more important as playoff teams scheme to shut down the stars.
“We’re just creating other options on offense for our best players,’’ Ayers said. “It takes the pressure off them and helps Ben out. You can see our offense is a lot smoother. It’s always been those three guys who made a lot of plays and, of course, Martavis. Coaches put guys in position to do what they do best.”
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