LATROBE, Pa. (AP) Ben Roethlisberger looked to his left, turned to his right and sent a 50-yard rainbow down the sideline.
Martavis Bryant – his No. 10 jersey a white blur – raced under it and gobbled up the final 10 yards to the end zone with a couple of massive strides as the crowd at Saint Vincent College roared with approval.
It was impressive, sure, but also a repeat of most of the big plays the talented Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver produced during a sometimes electric rookie season, when offensive coordinator Todd Haley simply asked Bryant to run straight as fast as he could and worry about the rest later.
Article continues below ...
What happened after Bryant’s pretty score on Monday provided compelling evidence he evenly divided his offseason between the weight room and the film room.
Facing press coverage at the line of scrimmage, Bryant shook loose then darted across the middle before extending most of his 6-foot-4 frame to snatch a Roethlisberger fastball out of the air. It was an impressive display of strength, precision and concentration.
The reed-thin rookie who caught eight touchdowns even as he struggled to grasp the playbook is gone, replaced by a more confident – and decidedly more muscular- playmaker who is ready to develop into something other than just a one-dimensional threat.
”I toned up a little bit,” Bryant said.
Or maybe a little more than that.
Bryant added 20 pounds of muscle over the spring, most of it in his well-tattooed biceps. The team didn’t ask Bryant to get into the gym and start lifting more. He took it upon himself following a valuable lesson he learned during a rocky training camp last summer.
Bryant sprained his shoulder in the preseason finale against Carolina, an injury that nearly derailed his entire season.
”My arms wasn’t as strong so I was like, ”I’ve got to get bigger,”’ Bryant said.
And not in the flabbier sense.
Bryant is quick to point out he has 4 percent body fat. He also has a tendency to absentmindedly rub his upper arms as if to remind himself of all those offseason reps. The muscles will look nice in the team photo, but Bryant is well aware they mean nothing if he can’t do more than just run fly patterns.
The Steelers would like Bryant to become more adept in tight spaces, including the middle of the field, to take some of the attention off All-Pro Antonio Brown. To do that, Bryant needs to know where he’s going. That wasn’t always the case last fall.
”They would put certain things in we would want to do in games and we’d execute them in practice and if they worked in practice we’d work them into the game,” Bryant said. ”This year they’ve got the whole playbook open.”
It needs to be if the Steelers want to continue to evolve. An expanded role for Bryant would give Haley another wrinkle for an offense coming off a season in which Pittsburgh set franchise records in just about every major statistical category, a unit that didn’t really take flight until Bryant worked his way off the inactive list in Week 7.
Pittsburgh went 8-2 with Bryant in the lineup and he made nearly all of his 26 receptions count despite limited playing time. Expect those limits to vanish.
”We’re asking him to do more, to move around a little bit, play frontside, backside, know things better,” Roethlisberger said. ”We’re going to count on him in the no-huddle. Last year when we were calling stuff he was asking everyone what to do. We feel more comfortable with him knowing what to do so hopefully we can translate that into playing faster.”
That’s perfectly fine by Bryant, who can’t afford to feel as if he’s arrived. Pittsburgh picked up Sammie Coates out of Auburn in the third round of the draft. Like Bryant, Coates is bigger (6-1) with field-flipping speed.
Like Bryant, Coates is dealing with concerns about his ability to make the tough catches. Bryant adjusted by following Brown’s example and burying himself in his work, which included two-hour film study every day and developing a close friendship with the JUGS machine.
Ask Bryant the difference between this summer and last summer and he shrugs his shoulders, saying it’s just understanding what to expect.
Teammate Tajh Boyd knows better. The two played together at Clemson, where Boyd was the star quarterback and Bryant was the promising but unproven talent. Fast forward a couple of years and Boyd – who is hoping to catch on as a third-stringer – is the one learning from Bryant.
”His mindset is of a fourth or fifth-year veteran,” Boyd said. ”The guy is going to be special man.”
In addition to a bigger one.
Online: AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL