Steelers notebook: Trio forced to step up with Wheaton out for season opener
The Steelers receiving corps was projected to be one of the deepest in the NFL. That depth will get tested early this season.
Already without the suspended Martavis Bryant for the season, the Steelers announced Saturday that Markus Wheaton is out for Monday night’s season opener at the Washington Redskins.
Wheaton played in just one preseason game and did not practice this week.
With no Wheaton behind No. 1 receiver Antonio Brown, second-year players Sammie Coates and Eli Rogers — they have one regular-season NFL catch combined — join veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey as the top secondary options for Ben Roethlisberger.
“We’re one of the rare (receiver) groups that everybody from ‘AB’ down to the practice-squad guys, we’re going to be coached up and work hard every single day because you never know when your number’s going to be called,” Heyward-Bey said. “Anybody can have a big game. We all know ‘AB’ is going to have a big game. The rest of us just all have to come in when our number’s called.”
Rogers, who missed all of his rookie season because of injury, played extensively in the slot at Louisville. On Saturday, however, he allowed that Wheaton’s absence might modify his role.
“We will see what happens,” Rogers said. “You may see me outside. You may see me in the slot.”
Good news for many
Tackle Marcus Gilbert (elbow), defensive end Cameron Heyward (ankle), rookie defensive tackle Javon Hargrave (quad), third-year defensive tackle Daniel McCullers (knee) and safety Shamarko Thomas (groin) practiced Saturday and will play Monday.
Besides Wheaton, reserve offensive lineman Cody Wallace (knee) and fullback Roosevelt Nix (back) also were ruled out after neither practiced all week.
New (old) fullback
David Johnson always has worn a number in the 80s — designated in the NFL for tight ends and wide receivers. But Monday, he’ll be the top option at a position in the backfield.
Nix’s injury elevates Johnson, purportedly a tight end, to the top of the depth chart at fullback.
“Any team I have been on, there was never a real fullback, so whenever we had a fullback play, I did (it),” said Johnson, who was drafted by the Steelers in 2009, signed with San Diego five years later and then returned after two seasons with the Chargers. “You’ve always got to have somebody, even if you do have a fullback, somebody who’s fullback-capable in case somebody goes down.”
Johnson said it’s been typical for him throughout his career to practice at both positions, as well as the hybrid H-back.
Rivalry renewal hits home
Although there are no Pitt alumni on the Steelers roster — they haven’t drafted a Pitt player since 2000 — and just one former Penn State player (tight end Jesse James), that doesn’t mean Saturday’s Pitt-Penn State game didn’t register in the locker room.
As the Steelers came off the practice field Saturday, Pitt held a 14-0 lead, and that generated more than a few reactions from players and coaches.
A group of players — most loudly, safety Robert Golden — took to playfully taunting James.
Pitt shares the Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side with the Steelers. One Steelers assistant coach went to each school: Pitt’s Jerry Olsavsky (inside linebackers) and Penn State’s Mike Munchak (offensive line).
Not as special
Golden is entering his third season as the Steelers’ special teams captain. But because he’s in his first season as a starting safety, he won’t be as prominent on those special teams.
Golden previously played on all “core four” (punt return and coverage; kickoff return and coverage) special teams units. This season, he likely will appear on just one.
“Last year, I started (three) games and still was a core-four guy, so I’m definitely highly conditioned enough for the job,” Golden said. “But it’s up to the coaches. Whatever they ask of me, I’m ready to rock.”