The Pittsburgh Steelers have of late grown accustomed to having a veteran presence in the slot in their offense. It was a role that the great Hines Ward fulfilled in the latter stages of his career, and he was succeeded in that capacity by Jerricho Cotchery. After Cotchery departed in free agency, the Steelers looked to shift Markus Wheaton into that spot with mixed results.
While there was a variety of complicating circumstances in Wheaton’s up and down performance, he has talked in the past about how it was a feeling out process adjusting to seeing the bulk of his playing time in the slot rather than outside, which is where he has been accustomed to playing throughout his football career.
With Martavis Bryant suspended for the duration of the 2016 season, however, the fourth-year wide receiver believes that he will be seeing a higher proportion of his snaps being taken back on the outside than was the case last season.
It probably shouldn’t be viewed as anything remotely out of the norm for this time of year, of course, but the Steelers are spending their time during spring drills in OTAs to get a lot of good looks at quite a number of players in the slot—or as Wheaton put it to Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider, “pretty much everybody”.
He noted Antonio Brown working in the slot, which is certainly not a surprise, and is a role that he has played throughout his career. He also noted that the Steelers are working with Sammie Coates in his second season, “doing a little inside”.
The longest-tenured receiver behind Brown also mentioned Eli Rogers by name, saying that he “looks real good” when asked if anybody had caught his eye. Pointing out his injury history and how the team hasn’t seen much from him, he followed up by saying that “he’s grown just from camp last year to this time this year”.
Wheaton told Wexell, however, that he wasn’t sure if he would be lining up primarily inside in the team’s three-receiver sets, and that he still needs to get that work inside to make sure that he is on the same page with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which was an early issue in his transition to the slot last year.
He said “it was tough because I was a little new to that inside spot and we had those big-play guys on the outside”. It also didn’t help that Roethlisberger missed four full games and parts of several others, making it all the more difficult for the pair to establish any sort of sustainable rhythm, especially with one of the pair adjusting to a bit of a different role.
It seems, however, that the team is looking to expand the diversity of their receiver packages by making sure that everybody gets their work on the inside, which is not always the case—at least not always the case with any meaningful degree of comfort or confidence.