PITTSBURGH — The adjustment period was bumpy, filled with shaky hands, shoddy route running and Sammie Coates’ own admission that he wasn’t in the shape he needed to be to play in the NFL.
And if the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver is being honest, it’s not quite over even after the best day of his suddenly blossoming career.
Coates understands that his 139-yard performance in Sunday’s 31-13 win over the New York Jets showcased both his immense potential and just how far he still has to go. It’s why he’s choosing to focus on the handful of drops rather than his video game-like burst from two Jets defenders that propelled him to the end zone for the first time on a 72-yard catch-and-run that made it seem like he was controlled by a 12-year-old furiously mashing the “sprint” button on his controller.
“The touchdown is just part of the game,” Coates said. “When you make mistakes, you don’t care about the plays you make. You care about the ones you left on the field.”
There were a handful to choose from, including a slightly underthrown pass from Ben Roethlisberger near the New York goal line in the second quarter in which Coates adjusted perfectly, only to see the ball go right between his arms. Or maybe the flip in the second quarter that should have been the easiest 1-yard touchdown of Coates’ life and instead ended with him hanging his head in frustration when he failed to get the lob in.
It’s the kind of miscue that would have haunted Coates during his rookie year. Not anymore. When Roethlisberger approached Coates to give him a pep talk, he found Coates ready to beat him to the punch.
“He almost sought me out to come back to him and believe in him,” Roethlisberger said. “I said you don’t have to tell me that. I’m going to come back to you and believe in you and come back to you. It was good to see that growth.”
The kind the Steelers (4-1) desperately needed Coates to make over the summer with Martavis Bryant out for the season while serving a one-year suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. All Coates has done over the first five weeks is average an NFL-best 22.1 yards per catch with at least one reception of 40-yards or more in each game, one short of the club-record streak Mike Wallace set in 2011.
Coates is becoming the downfield threat Pittsburgh envisioned when it took him in the fourth round of the 2015 draft. The Steelers were well aware of Coates’ issues with concentration, and he spent most of his rookie year inactive on Sundays as he struggled with consistency. Being healthy but unable to see the field wasn’t exactly the way Coates envisioned life in the NFL.
He arrived for camp well aware that Bryant’s absence left a noticeable void, one Coates spent training camp trying to prove to Roethlisberger he was ready to fill. Roethlisberger noticed the difference immediately and repaid Coates’ dedication with a vow to stick with him while Coates worked through the bumps Roethlisberger knew were going to come.
It’s why Roethlisberger kept going back to Coates on Sunday as part of Roethlisberger’s plan to help Coates develop what the quarterback called the “short-term memory” necessary to survive.
“That’s the great thing about Ben,” wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said. “(Offensive coordinator) Todd (Haley) can call all the plays he wants, but Ben is in control of where the ball goes, and Ben kept feeding Sammie to let him know, ‘Hey, I’m going to need you.'”
Down near the goal line again in the fourth quarter and looking for a knockout blow, Roethlisberger found Coates on a crossing pattern that ended with Coates holding on for his second touchdown of the day. Remarkable considering Coates played the second half with stitches in between the index and middle fingers of his left hand, and Roethlisberger isn’t exactly known for lobbing it near the end zone.
“I had to finish what I started,” Coates said. “I had to make up my errors. I felt like I had to play.”
The pain came later. Coates sported a splint on his left hand in the locker room and didn’t practice Wednesday, leaving his status for Sunday’s visit to Miami (1-4) uncertain. Whenever he’s available, he gives Pittsburgh a dimension that forces opponents to make an increasingly difficult decision on whether to double-team All-Pro Antonio Brown.
“With AB on the field, you know they got to watch him,” Coates said. “The defense, they got a lot to worry about with our offense. With the players we got around the ball, it’s hard to stop it.”
Including the wide receiver quickly growing up on the job.
NOTES: The Steelers signed RB Karlos Williams (younger brother of LB Vince Williams) to the practice squad. … RT Marcus Gilbert (ankle), LB Ryan Shazier (knee) and WR Markus Wheaton (shoulder) did not practice Wednesday. … CB Justin Gilbert (knee), S Robert Golden (hamstring), RB Roosevelt Nix (back) and WR Eli Rogers (toe) were full participants.