LATROBE, Pa. -- Eli Rogers burst off the line, prepared for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ "adjusting on the run" offense. That means QB Ben Roethlisberger and his receivers must determine midroute whether the defense has switched to man or zone after the snap.
Roethlisberger blurts out "man," so Rogers cuts across the field and finds an open space. Roethlisberger throws to Rogers’ far left, "where only I could catch it," the receiver says, resulting in a diving grab that drew a reaction from the crowd at Chuck Noll Field.
But even after great plays, receivers will usually hear something from Roethlisberger right after the play.
"If my angles are off a little bit, [Roethlisberger] will definitely let me know if I need to come down in a 45-degree angle," said Rogers, who is competing for reps in the slot.
Every degree counts.
The constant chatter exemplifies why the Steelers feel they can manufacture enough on-field chemistry to offset looming personnel losses. The Steelers are out a No. 2 receiver (Martavis Bryant, suspended), a starting tight end (Ladarius Green, physically unable to perform list) and potentially a star running back (Le'Veon Bell, who has appealed his four-game league suspension). Second-year playmakers Sammie Coates and Jesse James combined for nine regular-season catches last year but must play pivotal roles now.
This time of year, Roethlisberger relies on a learning method that basically skips the step of the film room. Before, during and after every throw in early practice sessions, Roethlisberger is talking with his receivers, as if film study is happening in the moment.
This is not a new concept, but Roethlisberger really works this angle.
Roethlisberger says the 2016 Steelers must be a “selfless” team, but when it comes to route precision, he's at his most selfish, by design.
"They are hearing it right from me, and I'm telling them exactly what I want and how I want it," Roethlisberger said. "Coaches can tell them to run a route like this, but it's what I need, it's what I want. You talk to [QB backups] Bruce [Gradkowski] or Landry [Jones], they will even tell guys, you better ask Ben what he wants because that's what matters most."
And he wants it now, not in the film room five hours later. The film element is crucial, of course, but Roethlisberger believes the minds of his playmakers are freshest in the moment.
On Friday, Roethlisberger was driving the ball with authority, then chatting, and chatting some more about what just happened. Lots of hand movements, too, as a way to simulate route running.
Rogers likes it that way.
"The only way you can learn is by messing up," he said.
Roethlisberger hopes the constant reminders result in big plays months later. Roethlisberger recalls a play with Antonio Brown that the two just couldn't get right in practices. The play requires Brown to "wait to get my eyes before he makes a move," Roethlisberger said. Brown was just a little too early on his move. But after hundreds of reps, the play, which Roethlisberger won't disclose, resulted in two touchdowns.
The chemistry Roethlisberger has with Brown is difficult to replicate, and the QB knows it.
"I'm not going to be able to give Jesse James a look," Roethlisberger said. "But you hope to develop that at some point. You've just got to get used to each other."
Roethlisberger said he has grown in offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s offense to the point that he knows each player's move "down to the smallest of steps."
Everyone else must follow along. Coates, who displayed dazzling playmaking Saturday, is having an easier time with that process in Year 2.
"You're not going to know it until you get here," Coates said.