What a difference half a year can make for a receiver making the turn from NFL rookie to NFL veteran.
"As a young receiver in the NFL," offensive coordinator Todd Haley explained at the time, "you are taking a million card-offense reps and special-teams reps. That wears and beats guys down that aren’t used to it. You are seeing it with Sammie Coates."
Coates said it wasn't a "rookie wall" but that he merely had let "one bad day" turn into "one bad week," and that he would rebound.
He proved prophetic by improving each week until he caught two passes for 61 yards in the playoff loss at Denver.
Coates kept the momentum rolling through the offseason and now appears ready to replace Martavis Bryant as the Steelers' receiving threat off the bench. Coates is in much better shape this spring and has his offensive coordinator singing a different tune.
"He’s had a tremendous offseason," Haley said Wednesday after OTA 9. "He's a guy who, any day you came in here, was in here. You don’t see that with everybody, so you knew this guy had turned it up a notch. And I thought he finished the year in a strong fashion. It wasn’t an easy year. It’s not an easy year for a guy who’s been playing at a high level in the NCAA and then comes and has to be running scout team and all of that. But as the year went on, I thought everybody saw him growing and we saw it continue in the offseason and it’s continued out here. He understands it’s a great opportunity."
Much is depending on Coates because it's also a great opportunity for the Steelers. The defense has grown and the offense must maintain what it did last year. But it will have to do so without Bryant (suspended) and tight end Heath Miller (retired).
"The no-Heath thing will sting a little bit for a long time just because of the great player, person and teammate he was to have around," Haley said. "That being said, not one guy is going to come in and be Heath and do everything he did. I’m excited to see Ladarius (Green) once he gets out here. He’s been out here getting a lot of mental reps, and we have young guys in Jesse (James) and Xavier (Grimble). D.J. (David Johnson) being back in the building is nice. Matt Spaeth is a Heath-like character for us. I know that group sees the challenge and the opportunity ahead of them and we’re going to need them all potentially."
There will be additions, too, and to that end Haley is pleased with the recoveries being made by running back Le'Veon Bell and center Maurkice Pouncey.
"(Bell) was out here a couple days ago and looked great and is champing at the bit to be out there," Haley said. "I know he's working his butt off and he's as competitive a guy as we have. I know in our little conversations he's excited to get back and get at it.
"Pouncey we're seeing, and because he's out here doing it he's a little bit ahead. I know that guy. He missed it for a year. It was hard and painful for him even a little more than most guys. I'm excited to watch him go."
The 2015 offense was close to putting up the numbers of the record-setting 2014 offense, which set a franchise record with 436 points. Last season's offense was 13 points shy of that, and at 26.4 points per game it was a little more than a field goal per game shy of Haley's stated goal of scoring 30 points per game.
Is that still a goal?
"Still a goal," he said, and Haley listed, in order, turnovers and red-zone production as the areas that need to improve for the Steelers to move up from No. 3 to No. 1 in the NFL.
"That's what we want," Haley said. "Time will tell, and we've got a lot of work ahead of us, but we set a high bar the last couple of years and the guys that've been here know it. I think they're up for the challenge."
(For the transcript of Haley's interview, click here.)
AND THEN THERE WAS ONE
The Steelers signed first-round draft pick Artie Burns to a four-year contract with an option for a fifth. That leaves only one draft pick, third-rounder Javon Hargrave, still unsigned. The slot at which Burns signed suggests he's received just under $10 million for the four years, including a little more than $5 million in signing bonus.
Burns has been a backup most of the spring but lined up with the starting defense at times Wednesday to give veteran William Gay a break.
AWASH IN BACKS
Bell, of course, hasn't scrimmaged and the 33-year-old Williams doesn't look any different than he did a year ago at this time as he prepared to lead the team with 907 rushing yards. But there's more to the backfield.
Perhaps because of injuries the last two seasons and the need for another able back or two during each playoff run, the skill behind the first two runners is deep. Fitzgerald Toussaint broke a run down the sideline Wednesday, and Daryl Richardson, who averaged 4.1 per 169 carries in two seasons with the St. Louis Rans, broke a run up the middle. There's also Cameron Stingily, who lost 30 pounds since starting (and being injured in) the Hall of Fame Game last year, and another Erie Mercyhurst product (remember Ian Wild) in 5-8, 200-pounder Brandon Brown-Dukes is providing the quickness and cut-on-a-dime ability the Steelers wanted so badly from Dri Archer.
Fullbacks Roosevelt Nix and David Johnson have that position secured as well.
"This is as deep a group as I've been around," RB coach James Saxon told Pennlive's Jacob Klinger on Wednesday. And Saxon has also been with the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings since the 1999 season.
One question about the group that was asked Wednesday of Haley pertained to the mental state of Toussaint, who fumbled on the potential go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter of the playoff loss in Denver.
"To even get us into that position were huge plays he made in the Denver game," said Haley. "We were clear right almost when that game ended to make sure that everybody understood that wasn't the reason why we weren't moving on. You can't just look at one play. There were probably seven or eight plays in that game that could've made a difference. I think everybody's done their due diligence with Fitz on making sure there's no carryover from that. It was a bad play. It happened at the wrong time so a little more light shines on it. But I think the kid, from what I've seen so far, has been working hard and he's stepped it up."
Toussaint gained 97 yards (3.3 average) and scored a touchdown in the two playoff games last season.
COMPETITION AT LT
The offensive line has been consistent throughout in its attendance at these voluntary OTA workouts. Yet one position remains up for competition as Alejandro Villanueva and free-agent acquisition Ryan Harris prepare for a camp battle at left tackle.
"That usually plays itself out," said OL coach Mike Munchak. "I think Ryan Harris has been learning what we’re doing now when the running doesn’t really matter much, as far as what group they’re with. I want him to learn everything we’re doing. He’s been playing a little bit of left and a little bit of right to get comfortable on both sides, learning how we do things, learning the technique, all the things that are just a little different for him. Then, we’ll get to training camp and get the pads on and those things will kind of unfold, who the best five are. We try to do that every year, but that’s the emphasis of looking at those two guys and giving everyone a chance to have the best guys on the field. He’s a great addition for us and I’m looking forward to seeing how that all plays out."
As Munchak referenced, Harris has been swapping sides with rookie Jerald Hawkins on the second team. On Wednesday, the second-line center was B.J. Finney, completing the three-week interior rotation with Cody Wallace and Chris Hubbard.
Munchak on what he likes about his LT competitors:
* Harris -- "He’s a smart player. He has good strength. Just seeing him out here, even when they’re not in pads, you can see certain things. He’s obviously smart. He’s been around and nothing is really new to him. So, you lose some players like we did with Kelvin Beachum, you need to bring in guys like him so that we can move forward and have a good competition and that’s what he brings. Plus, he just won the Super Bowl. This organization has won quite a few of them. When you have players who have won it’s a good feeling to know these guys know how to win. He knows how to win. He stepped in last year and played 16 games and played really well. He brings all of that, which is nice, too. So, yes, really happy he’s here."
* Villanueva -- "His work ethic and his desire to be great. I think it’s important to him to not leave any stone unturned. He wants to know everything, how things work, and he’s always picking everyone’s brain about how to do certain things. He’s wanted so much information, he still does, and that’s why I think he’ll continue to grow. Watch him here. He’s already so much better during these OTAs than he was when the season ended, as far as understanding what we’re doing, having had a chance to go back and watch himself on tape, what he did well and what he needs to improve upon. When you have a guy who works like that, has that kind of work ethic, then you know he’s going to continue to do better and that’s exactly what he’s doing."
* The Steelers released OLB Kevin Anderson -- whom they had signed a day earlier upon releasing undrafted rookie OLB Tyriq McCord -- and replaced him with OLB Mike Reilly. The Cleveland Browns had signed Reilly last year as an undrafted rookie free agent out of William & Mary and he lasted until the Browns' final cuts. Reilly was eventually signed to a futures contract by the Arizona Cardinals but was released May 9. The absences of James Harrison, Bud Dupree and rookie Travis Feeney allowed Reilly to receive plenty of reps Wednesday.
* Slot safety Sean Davis appears to be a quick learner. After being scorched badly by Antonio Brown during red-zone work early in practice, Davis was in perfect position to break up a Ben Roethlisberger pass attempt to Brown later in the workout.
* Inside linebacker is another deep position heading into camp. Jordan Zumwalt received some work Wednesday and appears as if he'll enter his third training camp with a chance to to finally have a healthy one, and a potentially strong one. Zumwalt appeared tall, quick and confident.