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LATROBE, Pa. — In the Pittsburgh Steelers preseason opener against the visiting Detroit Lions on Friday (7 p.m. EDT), they will get a first glance at how the offense will look without receiver Martavis Bryant and tight end Heath Miller, two key cogs in the unit last season.
Bryant is suspended for the season and Miller retired, opening the door for other players to slide into key roles.
Sammie Coates has been a standout the first two weeks of training camp, but he is not the only second-year receiver likely to have a bigger role in the offense. Slot receiver Eli Rogers has taken more reps with the first-team offense and is expected to be on the field a lot.
“We’ll see when we get to the games,” said offensive coordinator Todd Haley, “but everything we’ve seen to this point, we haven’t had a slot guy like him since I’ve been here. It hasn’t been close.”
Haley has been the Steelers’ offensive coordinator since 2012. For the past few seasons he had All-Pro Antonio Brown and Bryant outside. Haley used Markus Wheaton in the slot. Wheaton has been productive at times in the slot, but Haley thinks he is better suited to play on the outside.
Rogers, who played at Louisville, might have earned a roster spot last summer, but he injured his foot early on in training camp and was placed on injured reserve. He fractured his fifth metatarsal in the first week of camp.
“It was very disappointing,” Rogers said. “I was injured since high school. There was a hairline fracture. So all these years, I was playing with an injured foot. It was hurting when I would run. I never said anything.
“It was definitely a blessing in disguise for me to get injured before the season, and it was definitely a blessing for them to keep me here. Now I feel like it was meant to happen.”
The Steelers are crossing their fingers that he can stay healthy. If he does, Haley will have a new target for Roethlisberger, obviously making life more difficult for opposing defenses.
That story is different at tight end, at least in the first preseason game.
Ladarius Green was signed to replace Miller, but remains on the PUP list after undergoing offseason ankle surgery. Second-year pro Jesse James will run with the first team until Green is ready.
–Cornerback Artie Burns, the rookie first-round pick, continues to be slowed by an undisclosed injury. He has been in and out of practice for the past week.
–Offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins, the rookie fourth-round pick, has been impressive. He is not likely to play much this season, but the Steelers might have found a future starter in a later round of the draft. That’s always a plus.
–QB Bruce Gradkowski was re-signed after offseason hand and shoulder surgery. He doesn’t have the same zip on the ball, and may need to demonstrate in the preseason games that he can still make the variety of throws necessary if he wants to stick on the 53-man roster as the backup or third-string quarterback.