Plaxico Burress is back where he once belonged.
The Pittsburgh Steelers brought back the veteran wide receiver on Tuesday to provide depth at a position devastated by injuries while hoping there’s enough gas left in the 35-year-old’s tank to give the offense an added dimension near the goal line.
Burress impressed Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert during a brief workout early Tuesday even though he hasn’t played since the end of the 2011 season as a member of the New York Jets.
“He’s in really good physical condition based on the workout I just saw,” Tomlin said. “He’s got very good body control for a big man. He can drop his weight at break points and obviously he’s no stranger to football.”
The Steelers (6-4) are in need of healthy bodies at wide receiver after Jerricho Cotchery fractured his ribs late in Sunday night’s 13-10 loss to Baltimore. Antonio Brown has missed the last two games due to an ankle injury and Tomlin listed Brown as questionable for Sunday’s game against Cleveland (2-8).
The 6-foot-5 Burress spent his first five seasons in the NFL with the Steelers, who selected him with the eighth overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft. He moved on to the New York Giants in 2005 and caught the game-winning touchdown pass in the 2008 Super Bowl before his career derailed after accidentally shooting himself in a New York nightclub, leading to a gun charge that resulted in a 20-month prison sentence.
Pittsburgh courted Burress when he returned to the league last summer, though Burress opted for a more lucrative $3 million offer from the New York Jets. Though he lacked the explosion that made him one of the better deep threats in the league during his prime, Burress caught 45 passes for 612 yards and tied for the team lead with eight touchdown receptions.
The Jets opted not to bring him back, however, and Burress has spent most of the last year looking for a job. He’s finally got one on a team trying to keep its playoff chances afloat without injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is nursing a sprained right shoulder and a dislocated first rib.
Roethlisberger underwent additional testing on Tuesday, with encouraging results, though he will almost certainly miss his second straight start. Second stringer Byron Leftwich is also out after fracturing his ribs against the Ravens.
Enter Charlie Batch.
The seemingly ageless 37-year-old will fill in yet again on Sunday. Batch is 5-2 while subbing for Roethlisberger over the last decade, including a tidy 208-yard performance in a 27-0 victory over St. Louis last December.
The Steelers signed former New England Patriots quarterback Brian Hoyer as insurance. Hoyer spent three seasons backing up Tom Brady with the Patriots before being released at the end of training camp in August.
Batch lacks Roethlisberger’s mobility or Leftwich’s big-time arm, but his quick release should fit in well with offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s short passing game. Tomlin doesn’t expect Haley to give the playbook an overhaul to accommodate Batch.
“The changes will be subtle and they will be made with an emphasis geared toward maximizing his strengths and minimizing his weaknesses,” Tomlin said. “We’ve got a great deal of confidence in Charlie.”
Maybe it’s because Batch – and the Steelers – have been here before.
When Roethlisberger was suspended by the NFL for the first four games of the 2010 season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, Batch stepped in and led Pittsburgh to a pair of victories after original substitute Dennis Dixon went down with a knee injury. He did the same last year against the Rams after Roethlisberger opted to rest a busted ankle.
“One thing I can say about this quarterback situation is, as uncomfortable as it may be, it’s not something we’re foreign too,” Tomlin said. “(The backups) do a great job of rallying and answering the bell.”
It’s something the Steelers believe Burress can do. If Brown can’t play, Burress’ workload could be pretty heavy for a guy who hasn’t seen a live snap since New Year’s Day. The Steelers only have three healthy receivers on the roster in Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and little-used David Gilreath.
Pittsburgh’s passing game has thrived under Haley this season, with Roethlisberger on pace for career-highs in attempts, completions, completion percentage and touchdowns before going down. The only thing the Steelers lack is a receiver who presents a mismatch in the red zone, a role Burress can fill nicely.
Batch and Burress aren’t the only familiar faces who could return this weekend.
Safety Troy Polamalu – out since Oct. 4 with a right calf injury – will run on Wednesday and Tomlin did not immediately rule him out. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who is rehabbing from ligament damage to his ankle, has been cleared for individual work though it’s uncertain when he will be cleared to practice.
Notes: To make room for Burress and Hoyer, the Steelers released DB Marshall McFadden and RB Baron Batch ... Tomlin said he doesn’t believe the injuries to Cotchery or Leftwich are season ending, adding he believes Leftwich fractured the ribs while getting sacked in the second half against the Ravens ... RB Isaac Redman, who left the Ravens game with a concussion, has responded well to testing and should practice this week.
Plaxico Burress is back where he once belonged.
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