PITTSBURGH — Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has not always been a staple of the team’s optional offseason training activities — OTAs — over the last few years.
But after practice one, where Roethlisberger was a regular participant, he said that is likely going to change this season.
There are several reasons for that decision — including his quest to be a better leader this season — but there’s also a very practical reason for Roethlisberger’s presence.
Steelers will be replacing the production of Antonio Brown after he was traded to Oakland, and that’s going to be no small task. He had 104 catches for 1,297 yards and a league-high 15 touchdowns last season, and the theory of the Steelers making an addition by subtracting Brown’s attitude from locker room won’t hold up if they can’t replace his production.
To that end, the Steelers acquired veteran receivers Donte Moncrief and Johnny Holton and drafted Toledo’s Diontae Johnson in the third round. Those three, along with returning backups Eli Rogers, Ryan Switzer and James Washington, will vie for playing time along side No. 1 receiver-to-be JuJu Smith-Schuster.
That’s three totally new receivers and another three that combined for just 64 catches a year ago that Roethlisberger needs to get on the same page with, and the no-pads setting of OTAs provides the perfect landscape for getting quarterbacks and wide receivers on the same page.
“It’s pretty important,” Roethlisberger said after practice on Tuesday. “Whether it’s young guys, whether it’s rookies, whether it’s guys from other teams, it definitely is a new kind of challenge. That’s what makes it fun, too. You love the challenge. You love working with the guys, communicating. That will be the biggest thing, I think, is communication — being able to talk to guys and tell them exactly what I’m thinking and asking them.”
Moncrief, in particular, is a veteran receiver that looks to be in line for a lot of targets, and the two got started in working on getting on the same page on Tuesday.
“I was talking today with ‘Crief today a couple of times,” Roethlisberger said. “I was asking him ‘Hey did you feel good on your depth there?’ Just working different things out. It’s definitely going to take some big focus.”
Entering his sixth season, Moncrief is no stranger to what it takes to get the job done in the NFL. He has a career 12.7 yards-per-catch average. But he’s struggled to put up big totals the last two seasons thanks to scuffling offenses. The 2017 Indianapolis Colts were without Andrew Luck all season and the 2018 Jacksonville Jaguars pinballed unsuccessfully between Blake Bortles and Cody Kessler.
Now, he’s hoping to build a meaningful connection with Roethlisberger.
“He can spin that ball, for sure,” Moncrief said. “He makes crazy plays. He doesn’t like going down. He can extend plays. That’s a good thing to know. … I’m ready to get our timing down and get ready to get some of those balls.”
The Steelers’ biggest free agent signing on the offensive side of the ball, Moncrief is eager to earn his way into that role.
“I’m a new guy,” he said. “He’s trying to learn me, and I’m trying to learn him, so I’m coming out here and showing him the best routes that I have, so I can gain trust and make those tough catches.”
Both seem to be enjoying the process, and they’ve seemingly already started to develop some chemistry, with Roethlisberger poking friendly fun and Moncrief’s decision to do his post-practice interview with his helmet on.
Even though he’s at OTAs to do more work this season, Roethlisberger seems energized by the thought of working with some fresh blood.
“It’s fun,” he said. “Some of the guys I was just eyeballing, some of the new guys. You get to watch them, even if you don’t get to throw to them necessarily, to watch them work. I got to throw one to the new guy, too, the rookie. So that was fun.”