Through the steel curtain
PITTSBURGH – Steelers rookie wide receiver Justin Brown just completed his first NFL game and roamed around midfield at Heinz Field on Saturday night looking for someone he might know from the New York Giants.
When approached by a reporter and asked to assess his performance during the Steelers’ 18-13 loss in their 2013 preseason opener, Brown politely obliged but remained expressionless when discussing his debut effort.
His demeanor didn’t change – until he was asked about playing with fellow receiver Derek Moye. He then suddenly flashed an enormous smile and talked as if he didn’t have to rush off the field and into the locker room.
“That was kind of cool,” said Brown, who played three seasons with Moye at Penn State and is now a teammate of his again with the Steelers. “I looked over at one point, and it was me and him. It reminded me of when we were at Penn State, being in the huddle at the same time. That was nice.”
Brown and Moye are both trying to secure a roster spot with the Steelers this summer. Both are currently on the bubble as far as making the team and will have three more preseason games to try and impress the coaching staff.
Brown might have an edge because he was a sixth-round draft pick in April and entered Saturday’s game in the second quarter. He ended up being targeted six times and led the Steelers with four receptions for 32 yards.
“I could have done a lot better,” said Brown, a Wilmington, Del., native. “I’ve got to go back to the film and see what corrections I need to make and try to do better next time.”
Moye is technically in his second NFL season after being signed by the Miami Dolphins last May, then getting released and spending last training camp with the New Orleans Saints. After getting cut before the 2012 season by the Saints, Moye hooked on with the Steelers last November on their practice squad and then was re-signed to a futures contract in January.
He came into Saturday’s game at receiver in the third quarter and caught his first two NFL passes on consecutive plays early in the fourth quarter. He finished with two receptions for 22 yards.
“It felt good getting out there away from the camp setting and being in a game setting,” said Moye, who grew up a Steelers fan in Rochester. “It was a great experience for my first preseason game. It’s up to me to make plays. I feel I made some, but I have to keep trying and keep my focus on what’s ahead.”
The two could very well be battling it out for the Steelers’ fifth receiver spot. Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are clearly the starters with veterans Plaxico Burress and Jerricho Cotchery and rookie third-round pick Markus Wheaton the next in line.
David Gilreath, a second-year player who spent most of last season with the Steelers, appearing in three games, played ahead of Moye on Saturday but didn’t have any passes thrown his way and muffed a punt. Three other receivers – Reggie Dunn, Kashif Moore and J.D. Woods – are also trying to gain a roster spot.
Where Brown and Moye stand out above the others is their size – Brown is 6-foot-3, and Moye is 6-5. With the Steelers losing tall tight ends Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth to injury, and with 6-5 36-year-old Burress suffering a possible career-ending shoulder injury last Thursday, the Steelers don’t possess many tall targets for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
In a twisted way, the Burress injury could be just what Brown or Moye needed. But neither is approaching the rest of camp thinking he has the inside track.
“It doesn’t hurt (my chances), but I can’t worry about that,” Moye said. “I have to worry about what I do on the field, try to impress the coaches and make plays.”
“It’s bad that Plaxico went down, and I hope he has a speedy recovery,” Brown said. “I’ve just got to keep getting better.”
For his part, Burress has tried to show the young receivers the ropes of being a tall receiver in the NFL. He knows Moye a little better because they both were with the Steelers late last season.
“I can help them with body lean, learning to position yourself,” Burress said. “There are definitely pros and cons to being a tall receiver. The more that (Moye) plays, he’ll understand the different things that smaller receivers can’t do because of their size. I show him how to put himself in position to shield the defender away from the football, on how to reach and get the football and things like that.”
Moye and Brown are also working hard on special teams because that’s most likely where they’ll see game action if they end up making the team for the regular-season opener on Sept. 8.
“There aren’t many fourth or fifth receivers in the NFL who are just receivers,” Moye said. “You have to bring more to the table than running routes and catching balls. I do whatever (special teams) coach (Danny Smith) tells me to do.”
Moye and Brown both enjoyed productive careers at Penn State. Moye played as a redshirt freshman in 2008 and then started every game from 2009-2011, finishing his Nittany Lion career with 144 receptions for nearly 2,400 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Brown played as a freshman in 2009 and then started nearly every game opposite Moye in 2010 and 2011. He had 73 receptions for 1,047 yards and three touchdowns at Penn State.
Brown then transferred to Oklahoma for his senior year and caught 73 passes for 879 yards and five touchdowns. His quarterback at Oklahoma, Landry Jones, was the Steelers’ fourth-round draft pick and completed three passes to Brown against the Giants.
“It was nice playing with Landry because I’m used to playing with him,” Brown said. “But at the same time, I’ve got to be ready with whatever quarterback is out there.”
Brown and Moye made big first steps on Saturday. They still have a long road ahead of them, but at least they’ll be able to go through the experience together.
“Justin and I are good friends from our days at Penn State,” Moye said. “It’s been a really good experience to play with someone who was a friend of mine before I came to the NFL.”