PITTSBURGH – Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery combined for about 30 percent of the Steelers’ pass receptions and receiving yardage last season.
More importantly, that duo caught 16 of the Steelers’ 28 touchdown passes, including a team-leading 10 by Cotchery.
With Sanders and Cotchery gone, having left in free agency for Denver and Carolina, respectively, the Steelers will be counting on new players to fill some major roles in the passing game.
For a team that made regular use of a no-huddle offense last year, getting new receivers – veterans Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey and youngsters Markus Wheaton, Justin Brown, Derek Moye and rookie Martavius Bryant – working in sync with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is critical.
“(Ben) is obviously very comfortable with the no-huddle,” said tight end Heath Miller, one of the few holdovers from last season. “He always has been. I think it’s going to be good for us, but we all have to be on the same page. Ben likes to do that. He likes to make the calls with the ball in his hands. He’s been good at it, and I think we can be good at it if we’re all on the same page.”
The Steelers worked extensively on the no-huddle offense during the second session of OTAs last week. The final four sessions begin today and run through Thursday.
“We used it last year, and we were successful, so I think we’ll use it more,” Roethlisberger said. “I don’t want to call it our base offense, but I think you’ll see more of it, so it was more important for us to get it in early.”
Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown and Miller could be even more critical than ever, helping the new players get lined up and learn the nuances of how Roethlisberger likes to work when he’s calling the offense.
“I think it’s important to be on the field with him, hearing his calls and knowing what he likes in certain situations,” said Miller, who has been with the Steelers since 2005. “Also, if we can do it within a variety of looks, it will be better, too.”
Brown had a Pro Bowl season last year, catching 110 passes for 1,499 yards and eight scores. Miller had 58 receptions for 593 yards and one touchdown despite missing two games while recovering from a knee injury suffered at the end of the 2012 season.
Roethlisberger is quickly developing a rapport with Moore, who had 346 receptions in nine seasons with New Orleans before signing with the Steelers.
“I feel like Lance and I have already played together for a couple years just because he’s a pro and he’s a great player,” Roethlisberger said.
The Steelers hope that learning curve is similar for the other receivers on the roster. In an effort to accelerate that process, Roethlisberger took Brown, Moye and Wheaton to California for a week in February, spending time throwing passes to them.
“I wanted to take the three younger guys out there,” Roethlisberger said. “I offered it to everybody, but most importantly it was (Wheaton), Derek and Justin, just to work with them and get a feel and try to get an early start.”
After starting 0-4 last year, the Steelers know they can’t afford another slow start caused by the offense not playing to its potential when the regular season begins.
“I think a lot of it is going to be determined by how much the new guys and the young guys can learn,” Roethlisberger said. “We lost two starting wide receivers, who knew the offense and knew the no-huddle really well, so for us to use it we’re going to need the young guys and the new guys to pick it up quickly.”