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Kevin Gorman: Justin Hunter hopes to be big-play threat for Steelers

September 18, 2018
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Steelers cornerback Jamar Summers breaks up a pass intended for Justin Hunter during practice Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018 at Saint Vincent College.

Justin Hunter made the play of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ third preseason game Saturday at Heinz Field, a 32-yard, toe-drag touchdown catch that Hunter couldn’t wait to remind the Tennessee Titans about.

“Oh, they’re going to hear about it,” Hunter said, a wide smile stretching across his face at the thought of rubbing it in against his former teammates. “Most definitely they’re going to hear about it.”

But Hunter knows he’s going to hear about the plays he didn’t make in Monday’s meetings, with two standing out in particular. The first one, Ben Roethlisberger said, came on the Steelers’ second play and could have gone for an 80-yard touchdown. Hunter cringed when reminded.

“I really want that one back, I ain’t gonna lie,” Hunter said. “We talked about it all week. He gave me a quick signal. I didn’t quite see it. It was there. It was definitely there. He expected me to be somewhere and I wasn’t. That’s on me. ... It was there. It was a touchdown.”

The second mistake came late in the second quarter, when he “tried to get skinny” in bracing for contact on a third-and-6 Landry Jones pass over the middle. Instead, the ball was stripped by Titans linebacker Robert Spillane for an interception at the Tennessee 17.

That type of inconsistency has haunted Hunter, who was drafted in the second round by the Titans in 2013 but never developed into the deep threat they desired. Hunter had 68 receptions for 1,116 yards and eight touchdowns in three seasons in Tennessee before being released.

The sixth-year veteran is trying to become that deep threat for the Steelers, embracing a golden opportunity after they traded Martavis Bryant to the Oakland Raiders at the NFL Draft.

At 6-foot-4, Hunter is the type of tall target that Roethlisberger loves. Hunter received an endorsement from the quarterback after the game, despite the miscommunication that cost them a second scoring play.

“I expect big things like we saw,” Roethlisberger said. “For him to bounce back from that and make a play down the sideline for a touchdown, to me shows resolve and shows that he’s a guy that can put it behind him and move on. I want him to know that I’ve got confidence in him, no matter what.”

That confidence means the world to Hunter, who hopes to be a big-play threat opposite Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster but has competition in second-round draft pick James Washington.

“That’s what you want from your quarterback,” Hunter said. “If your quarterback has confidence in you, he’s going to throw you the ball. I try to keep that going in practice, especially being the deep-ball guy. If he’s throwing it to me, I’m going to try to catch it. For him to say that means a lot. I want to work hard for him.”

Hunter’s touchdown catch - originally ruled out by officials but reversed after a video review - represented something more meaningful. He has impressed teammates and coaches with his play in practices and preseason games but had only four catches for 23 yards and a touchdown in seven regular-season games last season.

“If I can do it on Sundays, that’s what (Roethlisberger) wants,” said Hunter, who signed a one-year deal in April. “You can see it in practice but if it ain’t putting no points on the board on Sundays, it doesn’t matter.”

For now, Hunter should be happy about getting his digs in on the Titans about the points he put on the board on Saturday.

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