Steelers’ role players are growing up on the job
The image of Antonio Brown’s seemingly elastic left arm fighting off a pair of tacklers to stretch the ball across the goal line and send the Pittsburgh Steelers into the playoffs will live on.
It’s one more highly GIF-able moment in the star wide receiver’s weekly dance with the improbable.
Zoom out, though, and the picture gets crowded by the guys who played vital parts in the drive that saved Pittsburgh’s season, a group of “who’s that?” players forced to grow up on the job for arguably the NFL’s hottest team.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw eight passes of consequence during the 10-play masterpiece on Sunday that moved the Steelers 75 yards in 69 seconds. Sure, two went to Brown, but three went to back up tight end Jesse James, thrust back into the starting lineup with Ladarius Green out with a concussion.
One went to rookie Demarcus Ayers, who deftly stepped out of bounds to stop the clock after the first catch of his career, a 9-yard gain that pushed Pittsburgh (10-5) to the end of field-goal range. One went to undrafted first-year player Eli Rogers, whose leaping grab pushed the Steelers inside the red zone. Still another went to practice squad graduate Cobi Hamilton.
Oh, and all that came after third-string tight end Xavier Grimble hauled in a leaping 20-yard touchdown from Roethlisberger in the first quarter.
This is not the group Roethlisberger thought he would have his disposal when the season opened. Yet there they were, delivering with a division title hanging in the balance in a raucous 31-27 victory.
“Sometimes it just doesn’t matter where you’re drafted, it doesn’t matter where you are on the depth chart,” Roethlisberger said. “Sometimes if you have the want to and the desire to get out there and make something happen, if you make the most or your opportunity, you get to do it and some of those guys did it.”
Even if the road to get here tested their patience and resolve. The Steelers took a flier on Ayers in the seventh round of the draft envisioning him as a return specialist but he couldn’t stay healthy during training camp and was cut before landing on the practice squad. He finally earned a spot on the 53-man roster against Cincinnati but was inactive on game day.
Ayers was told on Christmas Eve he’d be on the active roster for the first time in his career. In an effort to quell Ayers’ nerves, Roethlisberger tried to give the rookie a pep talk.
“Ben told me [Saturday] night, he said ‘Go to sleep, get some good rest, relax. It’s just football at the end of the day. You’ve been playing this your whole life,”’ Ayers said. “Before I went to bed, that’s the only thing I could think about.”
Suddenly Ayers found himself walking onto the field with the Steelers trailing by 10 in the fourth quarter. Lined up on the outside, Ayers darted downfield on a go route while Roethlisberger heaved it his way. The ball sailed just out of reach but Ayers drew contact from Baltimore defensive back Tavon Young.
The 35-yard pass interference penalty put the Steelers in position to kick-start their comeback. It also showed just how far Ayers has come.
Roethlisberger tested Ayers with a similar play in practice on Friday to see if Ayers could win a one-on-one battle with a cornerback. Ayers then watched the pass on a loop Saturday looking to see how he could do a better job of getting behind the defender. He easily slipped by Young at the line when it mattered to get a momentum-turning flag then later added his first ever grab as a professional.
“I grew up today,” Ayers said.
It’s a path that mirrors the one Rogers took a year ago when he broke his foot and spent the entire season on injured reserve. He’s played erratically this fall as the de facto second option at receiver following Martavis Bryant’s suspension and injuries to Coates, Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey.
In a de facto elimination game against an arch rival, Rogers finished with 84 yards receiving on four receptions, including a 39-yarder that set up a field goal and his leaping 20-yard gain five snaps before Brown went full Mr. Fantastic on the Ravens.
“We do it every day at practice,” Rogers said. “You just try to take those same elements you have in practice and take it to the game. That way guys don’t get tight. They don’t get tense. We knew we had to make plays. We stayed calm and poised.”