PITTSBURGH — Eli Rogers was the recipient of a lucky break when he scored his first NFL touchdown in his debut.
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ first-year wide receiver caught a three-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger with 29 seconds remaining in the first half Monday night to give the Steelers a 14-6 lead in an eventual 38-16 victory over the Washington Redskins in their season opener.
The pass was intended for wide receiver Sammie Coates, but ricocheted off him and right to Rogers.
“I just heard it bounce off somebody’s chest or shoulder pads or something,” Rogers said. “I kind of followed it. I saw it in the air and caught it.”
It was yet another sign of how much Rogers’ fortunes are changing as the Steelers (1-0) get set to host the Cincinnati Bengals (1-0) on Sunday at Heinz Field.
Rogers made a good early impression in training camp last season after being signed as an undrafted free agent from Louisville. However, Rogers wound up spending the season on injured reserve with a foot injury that had gone undiagnosed since his high school days in Miami.
However, Rogers caught a break in March when wide receiver Martavis Bryant was suspended for the 2016 season by the NFL for a second violation of its drug policy. That increased Rogers’ chances of making the team. Then, he got a bigger opportunity to make an impression during the preseason while wide receiver Markus Wheaton was slowed by a shoulder injury.
When Wheaton was unable to play against the Redskins, Rogers wound up being targeted seven times and had six receptions for 59 yards.
Rogers showed in his debut that he could adeptly handle slot receiving duties. Roethlisberger showed plenty of confidence, including throwing to Rogers for a 20-yard gain in the first quarter on a third-and-1 play in which he was covered by All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman.
“It just shows the confidence Ben has in me, the trust he has in me,” Rogers said. “It’s a blessing.”
Rogers did run a wrong route on the Steelers’ second possession that resulted in Roethlisberger being intercepted by cornerback Bashaud Breeland. However, the veteran quarterback is already developing a rapport with Rogers.
“He works hard,” Roethlisberger said. “He doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He made some mistakes that we’ll correct. I don’t expect him to make those mistakes again. He’s a guy that wants to be great. He has a desire to be tough and to work the slot. I like what we see, but he’s got some learning to continue to do.”
Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley also liked what he saw from Rogers.
“Eli played a bunch of snaps and really did a lot of good things,” Haley said. “Everything wasn’t perfect, but I thought it was a very good start.”
Wheaton is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game. He was a limited participant in practice Friday after being a full participant on Wednesday and Thursday.
Perhaps no one is associated with the Steelers is happier with Rogers’ development than Wheaton, who is hopeful he will be freed up from slot duty and able to line up wide, which he prefers.
“Eli looks great in the slot,” Wheaton said. “It’s looking like I won’t have to get in the slot at all. Todd does a good job of moving everybody around but for the most part I think I’ll be outside.”
The Steelers are also asking Rogers to return punts. While Antonio Brown has returned four punts for touchdowns in his seven-year career, the Steelers prefer not subjecting the All-Pro to injury in that role.
The Redskins punted only once and Rogers had a fair catch. He served in the role for three of four seasons as Louisville, averaging 8.6 yards a return.
“I’m willing to do whatever I’m asked,” Rogers said. “I’m just thankful for the opportunity.”