Steelers Offense Should Establish A Role For Plaxico Burress

By Matthew Marczi

In the weeks leading up to the start of the free agency period earlier this year, there was growing concern with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ wide receiver depth, given the imminent departure of speedster Mike Wallace and the fact that just two wideouts were under contract.

The Steelers attempted to remedy that by re-signing late-season addition Plaxico Burress at the start of the free agency period, and attempting to sign fourth-year veteran Emmanuel Sanders to an offer sheet. Of course, the team got a scare when the New England Patriots attempted to sign him, but the Steelers were able to match.

After the team drafted Markus Wheaton with their third round pick and Justin Brown with one of their sixth round picks, however, the conversation began to turn in the direction not of who Ben Roethlisberger would have to throw to, but who he would not have, and the fingers quickly began to point in the direction of the 36-next-week Plaxico Burress.

Suddenly, Burress was no more than a fifth wideout at best, just a red zone target who can’t play special teams. The fifth wide receiver has to play special teams, after all, so Burress no longer seems to have a place on the team.

But why can’t he play a bigger role with the team? Wheaton, Jerricho Cotchery, and Burress all have skill sets unique from one another—shouldn’t they split the third receiver role depending on the package?

Just two seasons ago, Burress played in 16 games, starting 13, for the New York Jets. He caught 45 passes on 90 targets—which is relatively efficient considering who was throwing him the ball—for 612 yards and eight touchdowns.

Despite just a 50% catch rate, Burress was only credited with four dropped passes, which gives a further indication of the poor quarterback play. His one issue during the season was being penalized, having gotten flagged five times. However, he did show that he was a capable and willing blocker.

He also did so with minimal preparation, a fact that perhaps gets overlooked. Burress, of course, spent roughly two and a half years and prison prior to signing with the Jets during the first week of training camp. And in that camp he quickly sprained an ankle that forced him to sit out the first preseason game and a number of practices.

While he went on to play in the next two preseason games, he did so while laboring through a lingering back issue that limited him in practices. He did not miss a game during the regular season, however, and was a reliable target for the unreliable Mark Sanchez.

In reality, 2013 is the first full offseason that Burress has had in five years, since 2008, and I do not think that is a fact that should be ignored. Last year, of course, he failed to catch on with a team until midseason, but in 2011, he missed all of spring practices and then labored through injuries during training camp.

This year, he appears to be fit and healthy, and is putting forth more effort now than he was in the spring. What’s more, he is building a rapport with Ben Roethlisberger that he has not had with a quarterback since he helped Eli Manning lead the New York Giants to a Super Bowl victory at the end of the 2007 season, and others are noticing as well.

Last week during an episode of Steelers Live, Bob Labriola shared his thoughts on the budding relationship after witnessing one of the team’s end zone passing drills:

What was interesting to me was the rapport between Ben Roethlisberger and Plaxico Burress. One of the combination routes that they ran, Plax was on the weak side, and it was the fade into the corner of the end zone. Ben put the ball on the money and Plax used his size to dominate the defensive backs. I really believe that if Plaxico Burress is going to have a role on this team, a spot, he’s gonna need to be very good down there, and from what I saw down there today, he still remembers how to do that.

Indeed, as the offseason has progressed, the support behind Burress and his prospects of securing a roster spot have been growing. Although he is still not a lock to make the roster, he appears to be in the driver’s seat for a spot, despite purportedly strong practices by Justin Brown and David Gilreath.

Maybe the greatest weapon in his arsenal is the fact that Roethlisberger wants him here. Of the projected top five wide receivers, only Cotchery even reaches six feet in height, and at that just barely. Both Brown and Derek Moye have height, but Burress has the experience, the veteran presence, and the relationship with the quarterback.

Todd Haley and the rest of the offense have the opportunity to maximize Burress’ skill set while still utilizing the quick strike passing game that was implemented last season. He has been there all offseason for a change, so if he is not utilized properly this year, it will be on the coaches.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • NW86

    Your points about this being his first full offseason in a while are well taken, but I still disagree. This is an offense that almost never uses more than 3 WR, so the only way the #5WR is going to see the field is on special teams, or if there are TWO injuries in front of him.
    Remember, the team rarely even dressed a 5th WR last year, and that was because, for most of the year it was Plax, and he didn’t play special teams. So the only way you’re going to keep 5 WR and actually dress and use them is if you keep J. Brown or Gilreath, and they play special teams.

  • steeltown

    Don’t forget Rainey was considered the 5th or 6th WR/RB/KR man, so they didn’t always have to dress a true 5th or 6th WR

    If we’re talking about different offensive schemes then different skillsets are paramount. IMO I would actually like to keep 6WRs to be honest, (#5Burress and #6JBrown) …Sanders, Wheaton and J.Brown can all contribute on special teams, plus I would then stash either Gilreath or JD Woods or Moye on the PS

  • Kenneth Wilt

    For me, Plax serves 2 roles, roles I would rather have him in than Cotchery.

    1. Goal line Receiver. If you have 3 receivers in along with Heath, he gives you a large target as opposed to all the smaller guys you end up with with Cotchery. If you think about matchups with Brown and Heath and Plax, you end up with some nightmare scenarios as a D. You can’t double everyone.

    2. 3rd Down Receiver. Exploit his size in the matchups just to move the chain. Cotchery is a very good receiver, but I bet he ends up playing the special teams/5th receiver role even if on the depth chart he shows up as the #3.

  • Mike Sweeney

    Keep Plax it will pay dividends, big time. It’s a gut feeling but not like when Cowher said that about Zeroue over Bettis.

  • Shannon Stephenson

    There has been reasons why he hasn’t had a full season in 5 years. Can he help the Steelers? I believe that what he MAY bring is not worthy of a roster spot. I could see him on the roster if Heath is still injured for a extra red zone target but if Heath is ready hate to see a young guy with potential being passed up for a guy who is wasting a spot on the roster.

  • Steeler50

    He’s a dinosaur. He’s old, slow and Stupid! (Likes to shoot himself in the thigh). Bring in some youth. Justin Brown and Moye are great all around receivers and special team players. Don’t mortgage your future giving a “one trick pony” one more year before he retires. We are going to need those new receivers soon. Sanders is going to leave – we won’t match his young money greed (if he isn’t hobbled before the end of the year). Crotch and Burress are ready for the old folks home. Why should we develop talent just to give it away to another team so we can keep the old men.

  • Matt Searls

    Man I wish he was still in his 20’s

  • steeltown

    Cotchery is only 31yrs old.. but yes, regardless he’s a FA next season so this is probably his final yr in a Steelers uniform

  • dennisdoubleday

    He showed what he could do when he caught 8 TDs from Mark Sanchez. He’s two years older, but in better shape now. Justin Brown MAY be good in the future, but give me Plax this year.


    Plax lost a few yrs in the NFL that he’ll never be able to get back, but I think he’s still motivated financially to play so whatever he has left I think PIT will get from from him…the key imo is the connection between him and Ben in the RZ…8 to 10 scores is not unreasonable.

  • Milliken Steeler

    Sorry but I don’t want to waste a spot on the roster on him if a younger and better worker shows potential like maybe Justin Brown.

    Plax is over and he did what he chose to do with his career. He disappeared in big games with us when we needed him most and his work ethic was always questioned. That is why we let him go to the Giants. Except for that catch in the Superbowl he disappeared that entire game on the Giants also.

    He gets himself thrown in jail for stupidity and do you remember the nice way he promoted himself before he got out of jail? All I do is workout, Im in amazing shape…yada yada yada..and do you remember who were the three teams that were interested in him? The Steelers, The Giants and the Jets. The Steelers and the Giants knew him and offered him a non guaranteed contract. The Jets took the bait and offered guaranteed money and so he of course chose the Jets.

    Do you remember what happened next? The ink wasn’t even dry on his guaranteed contract and Plax strained his hammy the first day and missed all of training camp. lol

    He didn’t make plays because he was unfamiliar with the system last year? Look at Wheaton, he was even late to get started and the Coaches cant get over how fast he has caught up and how much he has learned.

    I’m sorry but I don’t want this type of player on our roster. I want hard working winners. Players that realize the NFL is a gift and work hard not to ruin that opportunity. Let him go the way of Mendy and Wallace please. Remember…..cancer does spread.

  • Milliken Steeler

    Let him go peddle designer socks now, not set a bad example on our team for young receivers to see.

  • Shannon Stephenson

    I believe it is very unreasonable. IF HE HAD 3 TD’s I would be surprised on the whole year. 8-10 is a fantasy especially since guys who play almost all downs for the offense at WR are lucky to get that many TD’s

  • CW

    Personally I’d try to stash at least two of those three on the practice squad, maybe all three. Gilreath, JD Woods, and Moye all have serious potential as wide receivers and we all have seen how bad things can get if a couple of injuries occur.

    Gilreath is a solid backup PR/KR with some good shiftiness after the catch.

    JD Woods is a good possession wide receiver with great down field blocking instincts. Could turn into another Hines Ward with a little work.

    And Moye’s got height, good hands, and could develop into the same sort of Red Zone matchup nightmare that Burress maybe is for just a little while longer.

  • steeltown

    I like the potential of these guys as well, but there’s no way we can keep all three on the 8man practice squad

  • Christopher Wilkes

    I can easily see Burress having a part in 3-receiver sets this year anytime the Steelers are near the redzone. You’re right. Ben loves him some Burress, and that will big a huge factor in his production, as well as our injury issues at the TE position. Steelers will most likely keep 6 receivers with Burress and Brown securing spots. The only problem I see with that is all the injuries at the CB, so Brown might get sent to the PS in order to have another CB on the roster.

  • Christopher Wilkes

    I was thinking more like 6-8 scores this year if we’re productive in the redzone, Burress is healthy all year, and we have at least 5 receivers active for gameday.

  • CW

    Probably true, but I think with Burress, Sanders, and Cotchery all effectively in their last year with the team they might have to.

    If the Steelers find a way to extend Sanders before the season, it doesn’t become anywhere near as bad a situation for next year, but I’m assuming Sanders will not want to sign before proving he’s worth top dollar or proving he’s not worth an extension this year.

  • Brendon Glad

    I agree with you 100%. AND I think they will. A few of my Steeler friends were somewhat disappointed with the lack of impact that Plaxico had last year when he was signed mid-season. But in my opinion, they were overlooking a major fact. The new OC. If he had been walking into the Arians offense (which was a modified version of the one he played in up to 2004)…he probably would have had an easier transition.
    But it wasn’t, and so he probably only was able to learn a fraction of it, since they didn’t have the luxury of personal tutorials during game-planning for a playoff chase.
    I predict his season will FAR more resemble his Jets season of 2011, than it will his 1/2 season in 2012. And we will take that. Not asking for the Steelers/NYG Plaxico. The NYJ Plaxico will be a very nice piece to the puzzle.


    Going off LY, your number is more likely than mine…I’m thinking with Miller out he and Paulson are the only big targets and not much experience for Paulson…Plax can still create mismatches and use his body I think Ben is going to target him a lot more this yr if they keep him.


    Your rant is better placed LY I think…they would not have brought him back if he was any kind of an issue…for what they are paying him, I think he can still play in certain roles…use him in those roles where he can help the team or cut him.

  • Milliken Steeler

    Rant? lol That is comical as everything I stated were facts about Burress. Making a “special role” for a 35 year old has been with questionable work ethics when there are up and comers doesn’t make sense.

    We’re doing a good job purging questionable players….I hope this trend continues.


    I didn’t say you weren’t right on some things, but we’re talking about a yr later…do you really think they would’ve offered him anything if he was a problem LY? I don’t, and that’s more my point than anything…

  • Brendon Glad

    I remember what happened next. And I remember what happened in a lot of Plaxico situations that maybe you have forgotten (or had selective-memory about to enhance your points).
    1)I prefer not to dig back to the NYG SB run to evaluate Plaxico (because too much time has passed)…but since YOU did…maybe we should hearken back to the NFC title game, a game which to my knowledge is fairly important to win if you want to even be IN the SB. And Plaxico carried that team in that game. So the NYG SB rant about what Plaxico did not do in that game is a bit annoying. It’s the same annoyance I get when people talk about Ben’s poor SB in 2005-6…after he CARRIED them through the playoffs.
    2) After he pulled the hammy in NYJ training camp, how did he produce during the regular season? Are you expecting one of our rookies to give that production this year? By God, I’d love it if they did, but it would be very “rare” if it happened.

    I see Plaxico as a guy who is going to do 36/550/6TD’s this year. And that will be very welcomed. And I don’t think it needs to be at the expense of J. Brown or Wheaton. I think all 3 will make the roster (although I need to see J.Brown…all I have are the reports…want to see him with my own eyes before I hop on the bandwagon).

  • Brendon Glad

    Yeah, but you conveniently forgot a bunch of other “facts” about Burress to make your argument sound better.
    Trying to figure out where you get the “cancer” stuff from. I’ve yet to hear ONE player speak out on Burress as a bad-seed in the locker room. Send me a link if you’ve got one that I missed.

  • Brendon Glad

    That’s a legit concern. As a Steeler fan, (since I don’t have to actually go through the grueling rehab of a serious injury myself)…it seems like those 4-8 week injuries almost do more damage to the team than the season-enders (if it’s not a star). It puts the coaches and GM in very tough spots. And they are in VERY tough spots with regards to CB and TE. So a WR whom may deserve to make the team in normal circumstances, may suddenly be on a bubble that he doesn’t deserve to be on.

  • Milliken Steeler

    I conveniently didn’t bring up more Plax fails either. Stop living in the past and carving out a role just for Plax a 35 year old receiver is incompetent. Lets bring Oucho Stinko and Terrell owens over here too. smh.

    What part of unless there are injuries on the wr core he isn’t going to see the field don’t you understand? I’ll tell you right now and Ill come back here when it happens and highlight it for you again when it happens.

    He isnt going to be listed in front of A Brown, Sanders, Cotch, or Wheaton. If you think Plax is going to have more catches and outperform Wheaton this year, you haven;t been watching Wheaton have you?

    So if we only keep 5 receivers you waste a spot and yes I said waste a spot on Plax who contributes NADA…… I’ll say it again for you NADA on special teams. Justin Brown in fact fielded quite a few Punts on special teams in college. If he shows promise like he is right now, you do not waste promise on a 35 year old Plax.

    If he can keep your #1 receiver (possibly) from running back returns and risking injury…i would say that is smart football. We have some TE issues to don;t we? Maybe we want to keep an extra TE which might be smart with the injuries we have? No, lets waste that on Plaxico’s spot on the roster. smh

    Time to move on. I’m perfectly happy with Brown, Sanders,Cotch, Wheaton and Brown or another YOUNG receiver in our bunch to come in and learn.
    Lets say Sanders leaves next year. Who moves up Plaxico and his year older self ( 36 years old) or someone like Brown if he continues to impress and makes the team?

    Whats Plax gonna teach our young receivers? Height? lol He sure isn’t going to teach them work ethic now is he? I would much rather have Cotch leading by example. My point is valid about Plex and Brendon…..Plex disappeared in the playoffs a lot more then he appeared so please….

    oh and again. Please have Plax lay that line about how he wasnt familiar with the system last year and that’s why he was invisible on Mr Wheaton. Who missed out on a lot because of a league rule. He prepared and is catching up already. already….and he is a rookie! That my friend is what I want on our team.

    The maximum effective range of an excuse? = Zero Meters

  • Matthew Marczi

    The fifth wide receiver is not necessarily always the fifth wide receiver. As I said, Wheaton, Cotchery, and Burress all have different skill sets that would be appropriate for different circumstances, so each of them could play in three receiver sets depending on the in-game situation.

  • Matthew Marczi

    If Burress can help the Steelers win a Super Bowl this year, then he should be on the team, period. Right now I think he’s a more viable option as a big target than Brown or Moye.

  • Matthew Marczi

    And Plaxico Burress just left the field on a cart after landing on his shoulder/arm…

  • Milliken Steeler

    Annoying to me is you skipping over the facts. Just the facts please.

    In his whole career, he has caught 8 or more TD’s in a season THREE
    times. That’s it in 11 years THREE times. lol The great Plax and his
    6’5″ frame had a 1000 yards receiving in a season THREE times out of 11
    years playing and two of them were by the hair of his chin a 1008 yards
    and a 1025 yards respectively.

    You are pining over his height and as Plax has shown over his career that height doesn’t equal great stats. Especially when you don’t apply yourself to your craft and then shoot yourself in your own damn leg.

    He has averaged 5.8 td’s a year in his magnificent career.

    last time was with the Jets who have who as their other receivers?
    Besides Santonio “Im hurt again” Homes, who are the other great
    receivers the Jets have?Why did they let him go and not keep him
    after that one year despite needing him? We don’t need him on our team
    as we have a top four set of receivers that don’t include him.

  • Brendon Glad

    Looks like you may win by default. Just heard Plaxico got injured.
    And NO, I have NOT watched J. Brown/nor Wheaton in training camp. I don’t live there. All I have are the reports, which are good for both.
    And in other comments I’ve written about the current state of affairs, I’ve noted that the current CB and TE situation probably bodes badly for the 6th WR. And I AGREE…in a tie…the young guy deserves the nod.
    I just didn’t like the attack on Plaxico…nor do I like your “pooh-pooing” of 5.8 TD’s per season for a double-digit career. (How many Steelers have averaged THAT?) Nor do I like the attack on me…get ahold of your angst, dude. It’s a drag.

  • Milliken Steeler

    No attack on you intended Brendon. I was just defending my opinion about Plax and stating facts:)

    It might be moot as he could be done. I dont wish an injury on any player. The reporter who saw the play said Plax was out jumped by two defenders going up for the ball and fell on his arm.

    Its probably just a sprain or dislocation if he is in a sling.
    I see this as just a good discussion Brendon and not meant to be anything else. Cheers.

  • Brendon Glad

    Cheers as well. In a perfect world, the Steelers do what they usually do and render you correct, regardless of the significance of the Burress injury.
    They have an incredible skill of drafting WR’s past the 2nd round.
    So even if the Burress injury had not happened…I was still rooting for you to be correct (once I saw that 6 WR’s is now beginning to look like a “pipe-dream”). I just didn’t like the approach you took(the anti-Burress spiel). That’s why I responded how i did.
    We all want the same result…so I appreciate the “make-up”. GO STEELERS!!!!

  • Matthew Marczi

    Torn rotator cuff. The door is now wide open for Justin Brown. I hope he seizes the opportunity.

    Nothing like a timely article…

  • Steeler50

    Plax is a dinosaur. He’s out for the season. Old slow. And one trick pony. Now we can get some dynamic young studs to help us go to the Super Bowl. Oh yeah….we we need some ol as Gilbert is out of shape, Adams is unproven, Willie and max gone, the new guard’s knee is gone, whimper whimping, baptiste a joke, long and golic not ready for prime time. At this rate Ben goes down in 3 if we can’t run

  • Matthew Marczi

    Here’s an interesting article from Mike Prisuta on how the Steelers planned to use Burress this season, with quotes from Kevin Colbert: