PITTSBURGH -- Martavis Bryant didn't look like the savior of the Steelers' struggling red-zone offense Wednesday. He just looked like a rookie getting his first taste of genuine game preparation.
The 6-foot-4 receiver with the deep speed couldn't catch up to one pass, and he let another one go through his hands. But his quarterback wasn't about to judge Bryant harshly, or at all.
"I have to look and see if he was in the right spot, right depth. Was it me? Was it him?" said Ben Roethlisberger. "Plus, it is the first time we've done anything. Throw someone in the fire that quick, there's got to be a little bit of a curve.
"We've got an extra day this week so it's too early to pass judgment."
The two players worked together in the spring and summer, of course, but since the season has begun, and each rep is so much more meaningful, Bryant had only worked with the scout team and backup quarterbacks until Wednesday's practice.
But with nobody stepping forward to help the NFL's 31st-ranked red-zone offense, Mike Tomlin is looking at the tall, fourth-round rookie who used his 4.46 combine speed and 39-inch vertical jump to catch 13 touchdown passes in three seasons at Clemson. When asked what worked best for him there, Bryant said, "Fade balls."
The Steelers could use that skill, but since Bryant has never played special teams other than to return kicks, he's far from a sure thing to play.
Markus Wheaton may also have something to say about Bryant's playing time. The Steelers' first-year starter caught only four of 11 passes in last Sunday's loss, but Wheaton attacked Wednesday's practice with vigor.
"Yeah, I'm trying to get it together," said the second-year receiver. "Obviously I came off a bad performance but I'm looking forward to regaining my confidence and getting better. That's all I can do is get better."
Wheaton reached out to Roethlisberger for some extra work on Monday and then showed up early for extra film viewing Wednesday morning. At practice, his play was marked by a lack of the confusion that plagued him and Roethlisberger in Cleveland.
"He's putting the work in," said Roethlisberger. "He watches film, asks me what I want. I want him to know that I'm not discouraged by what's transpired the last couple of games, that it's as much me as it is him, that I need to work better to connect."
SHAZIER BACK IN SADDLE
Rookie Ryan Shazier returned to practice after missing three games with a sprained right knee. He wore a brace and, according to the man who replaced him, flashed his old speed at times.
"I saw some burst," said Sean Spence. "I saw him break up a couple of passes. I saw that burst I usually see."
Spence, of course, understands how to come back from a knee injury, so he gave Shazier some advice.
"I was just talking to him," Spence said. "I told him to ease into it. 'You're not going to be 100 percent right today. Try to get better each and every day.'" "I felt pretty good out there today," said Shazier. "There are some things I messed up, some things I can do better. But I was excited about being out there."
Shazier said, "We split reps. I was with the scout team, with the ones, with the twos, all over the field."
Did he cut loose and attempt to run full speed?
"It's kind of hard because you have to build up for it with more and more reps," Shazier said. "I was out there thinking a lot, so today I was just out there happy and thinking. I've got to calm my nerves back down and I feel everything will go back smooth."
THIRD ROOK A CHARM
The third rookie of note from Wednesday's practice, second-round pick Stephon Tuitt, is more likely to start than either Shazier or Bryant.
With Steve McLendon out, the Steelers have little choice but to move Cam Thomas from left defensive end to his more natural nose tackle position. And with reserve royale Brett Keisel missing practice and questionable with a knee injury, Tomlin must get Tuitt ready.
Tuitt is a 6-5 1/2, 303-pound defensive end out of Notre Dame. The 22-year-old has played in every game this season and his snap counts have been: 9, 15, 9, 2, 12 and a season-high 18 last Sunday. He's made two tackles.
If Tuitt starts, he'll be the first rookie defensive lineman to start for the Steelers since Casey Hampton started the 2001 AFC Championship Game. Hampton's first start was in the sixth game of his rookie 2001 season.