Over the course of the past couple of years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have undergone an uncommon amount of change, which could have been largely correlated with the fact that the team had finished 8-8 in consecutive seasons while failing to advance to the postseason.
In deference to general manager Kevin Colbert, the attitude used to approach the offseason in those years was that this was an 8-8 team and these were 8-8 players. It’s little surprise that a lot of things changed during those years.
One of the less obvious, but I think potentially significant changes from last season to this will be the rapport that exists between quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his young wide receivers.
In spite of the fact that Roethlisberger had arguably his best season—skewed largely thanks to the best seasons the franchise has ever had from a wide receiver and from a running back as a pass catcher—there remains some meat on the bone in terms of how he builds a relationship with and a level of comfort with some of the players behind Antonio Brown.
Remember, heading into the 2014 season, the wide receiving unit went through a significant overhaul outside of Brown. Markus Wheaton, entering his second season at the time, hardly contributed as a rookie due to significant time missed from injury, and when he was healthy enough to play he was buried in the depth chart.
After his six receptions in total during his rookie season, Wheaton entered the starting lineup in 2014 and matched his season total in the opener, which included two key receptions on the final drive of the game, which ended in a game-winning field goal.
Still, as the season progressed, Wheaton seemingly began to slump as it appeared that he and Roethlisberger were only sporadically on the same page, which is not particularly surprising for a young wide receiver thrust into a significant role. He began to get back on track toward the end of the year, but by then has been passed by Martavis Bryant.
Bryant, of course, was a rookie who, due to a combination of injury and inexperience, did not even dress for the first six games of the season, but once he was active, he was able to produce, so the Steelers were forced to find a way for him to contribute, even if he still lacked polish, which showed up from time to time.
I expect both of these young players to take a step forward this year in terms of consistency, which means running precise routes, reading the quarterback, holding on to the ball through the catch, and making smarter decisions after the catch.
As I have highlighted previously this offseason, Roethlisberger has experienced a lot of turnover amongst his starting receivers over the course of his career, but that was especially true lately. I think that having his top three targets from last year returning and providing that added layer of stability will lead to a more efficient, though not necessarily more explosive, offensive attack.