LATROBE, Pa. -- It was a full 20 minutes after the end of Steelers practice Thursday, and even the diehard autograph hounds, the ones who start lining up at camp seven hours before practice begins to get a prime seat on the hill, were heading to their cars. Markus Wheaton sat on the grass at the 20-yard line, awaiting his turn on the JUGS machine that would fire footballs at him, as it was doing for Antonio Brown and Sammie Coates, all members of one of the NFL's most explosive and deepest group of receivers.
They need all the extra preparation they can get, because the Steelers' receivers are a little less explosive and a bit less deep now that Martavis Bryanthas been suspended for the entire season under the league's substance-abuse policy. The suspension was one of the stunners of the offseason. And it, combined with the potential suspension of running back Le'Veon Bell, has already promised that this season will look more like last year than the Steelers -- who lost to the Denver Broncosin the playoffs -- would have hoped.
Bryant is a freakish talent at 6-foot-4 and 211 pounds with blazing speed, and sorting out how to compensate for his loss is the most pressing issue of a so-far mostly uneventful Steelers camp. The Steelers have averaged 5.6 more points per game when Bryant has been active since he entered the league in 2014, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger averages 57. 8 more yards per game when Bryant plays.
But if there is a silver lining to the string of maladies and misfortunes the Steelers endured in 2015 -- from the injury to Roethlisberger to other suspensions for Bryant and Bell -- it is that they know they can average 26.4 points per game and put a scare into the eventual Super Bowl champions during the second round of the playoffs, even when they are perpetually shorthanded. Last season, the Steelers played just two games in which Roethlisberger, Brown and Bell were all active. That keeps offensive coordinator Todd Haley's stated goal of 30 points per game well within range, even with the considerable shuffling that will ensue with Bryant gone.
"Last year, especially, prepares you for anything," Haley said. "What we did really well last year, we didn't let it drag us down -- we kept pushing forward. As coaches, you get excited for the challenge."
In the week since the Steelers opened camp, nobody has excited coaches more than Coates, the second-year pro whose greatest contribution last season was on the scout team. In a crowded and talented wide receiver room, Coates is likely to be one of the biggest recipients of the reps that Bryant would have taken, especially because he is skilled at handling the deep ball, a specialty the Steelers otherwise lose with Bryant gone. Coates, from Auburn, was active for just eight regular-season games, played in six and caught just one pass, his anonymity and disappearance a result of his own poor conditioning and the steep learning curve he had coming from Auburn's spread offense. But the Steelers finally saw a glimmer of the player they hoped Coates would be in the playoff loss to Denver when, with Brown injured, Coates caught two passes for 61 yards. When the offseason began, Coates was at the Steelers facility nearly every day working out and dropped six pounds. When camp opened, he was noticeably faster and more confident than the Steelers had seen him before. His has been the breakout story of the summer.
"It's always your fault why you're not playing," Coates said this week. "You can't blame nobody else. You have to learn from it, you have to grow from it. That's what I did. I took it and learned from it. Going through practices with the show team was my motivation. I knew I could do it, but I've got to push myself past the limit I was at. That helped me grow more as a player. It feels a whole lot better. I know the offense really good. I'm in better shape. I've got a lot more confidence coming in. My body feels better. Staying on the field is big for me."
The Steelers and Roethlisberger almost surely would prefer to have Wheaton, who played in the slot when Bryant was available, play more often outside opposite Brown to stretch the field. When Bryant was suspended for four games last season, Wheaton was not particularly effective. But since the most recent suspension this year, Haley has told Wheaton he doesn't want to pigeonhole him as a slot receiver, although that is where the Steelers already know his ability and Pittsburgh has a wealth of players who could line up outside.
This, though, is a contract year for Wheaton, and he now has a chance to be a true No. 2 receiver beside Brown.
"I'm excited about the opportunity," Wheaton said. "I don't care where I play. My average was pretty high, too, on the inside. I'm wide open. I just want to catch balls. We have guys that play outside. I'm not against staying inside, too."
Perhaps overlooked in the conversation: Darrius Heyward-Bey, the veteran whom the Steelers quickly signed to a new three-year contract after learning of Bryant's suspension; Eli Rogers, who was on injured reserve last year and has not played a snap but whom Haley singled out for praise; and 6-5 tight end Ladarius Green, who did not receive a $4.75 million signing bonus to be a blocker. With Heath Miller retired, Green represents the Steelers' move to more specialized tight ends, and he'll serve as another vertical threat.
Haley is still tinkering, and he wants to let more practice time play out before he settles on the primary roles for his group. But he thinks that even with Bryant gone, the Steelers' offense is still "quite capable" of scoring 30 points per game (the only teams to do it last year were Carolina and Arizona, with New England at 29). The deep, arcing passes from Roethlisberger are the crowd-pleasers during camp, and for a team with Super Bowl ambitions -- Wheaton said it is his only goal -- they are a necessity, no matter who is on the receiving end.
"We saw a lot of different combinations of players offensively, and somehow we were still able to get the job done," Wheaton said of 2015. "It brings comfort knowing that if somebody big does go down, we can all get the job done. But then again, if we stay healthy, I feel like nobody can stop us. The hardest part is staying on the field."