PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton is optimistic his sprained shoulder will be good to go in time for Sunday’s home opener against Cincinnati.
If he wants to keep up with the rapidly maturing players behind him on the depth chart, it’s probably a good idea.
Wheaton practiced Wednesday with an eye toward rejoining Pittsburgh’s electric offense for an early-season showdown with the Bengals. If Wheaton is being honest, he expected to be back earlier and remains at a loss why he found himself on the inactive list
“I wanted to go, I expected to go but I wasn’t able to,” Wheaton said.
So Wheaton found himself watching instead of playing for the first time since his rookie season in 2013 while Sammie Coates and Eli Rogers filled in. The jitters were palpable — for Wheaton, not the pair of second-year players eager to get involved in what may be the NFL’s most talented group of playmakers.
“I get so excited watching those guys, I was more nervous watching than playing,” Wheaton said.
Coates and Rogers certainly looked at ease, particularly Rogers. Undrafted after coming out of Louisville in 2015, Rogers spent his rookie season on injured reserve. It wasn’t fun, yet he took it as a chance to watch and learn from Antonio Brown. Rogers was the star of training camp while working out of the slot, his skinny 5-foot-10 frame adept at working in tight spaces.
With Wheaton sidelined and Martavis Bryant out for the year while serving a drug suspension, Rogers did not waste his chance against Washington, catching six passes for 59 yards and his first NFL touchdown. That came when a pass intended for Coates smacked off Coates’ right to Rogers’ facemask before he cradled it in his arms.
“It was a huge game for him,” Wheaton said. “First time out. Got his first touchdown, in a weird way, but it’s still a touchdown nonetheless, so I’m proud of him.”
Coates added two grabs for 66 yards, including a 42-yarder down the sideline that set up the first of Antonio Brown’s two touchdowns. Tight end Jesse James chipped in five receptions for 31 yards in a pretty savvy impersonation of retired Heath Miller. The Steelers put up 38 points even with running back Le’Veon Bell out while serving a suspension of his own.
As far as confidence builders go, what the young guys experienced should only make the Steelers that much harder to defend.
“It makes you feel good and it makes them feel good,” Roethlisberger said. “Some of those guys got their first NFL experience and for them to get that is a big thing. I’ve got confidence in them and I think they have confidence in themselves, so that’s key.”
No wonder Wheaton wants to get back out there and join in on the fun against the Bengals in the renewal of what is becoming one of the more intense rivalries in the AFC.
“Both teams are, in my opinion, getting better every year,” Wheaton said. “The rivalry is building because of it. The intensity is building because of it.”
NOTES: LB Ryan Shazier did not practice Wednesday while undergoing treatment for a right knee issue that popped up last in the victory over Washington. … RB DeAngelo Williams was selected AFC Offensive Player of the Week after rushing for a league-high 143 yards on Monday night.