PITTSBURGH — Jerricho Cotchery grew up the second youngest of 13 children. It was easy to get lost in the shuffle.
Do the wrong thing, like be late for dinner, and you end up going hungry.
Fighting to be heard in a family that big can be tough, so Cotchery went the other way. He was quiet and reserved. Disciplined too. If dinner was at 6, better be at the table a couple minutes early, just in case.
It’s an ethos Cotchery has carried over to life in the NFL. Never the fastest, the tallest or the more creative player, Cotchery instead has carved out a suddenly thriving 10-year career by doing all the big things right and the little ones too.
“He’s the same guy every day,” Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “There’s very little variance from Jerricho. He’s not an up-and-down, yo-yo guy at all.”
At a time in his career when most players at his position are struggling to hang on, the 31-year-old Cotchery is in the midst of a rebirth.
The 10-year veteran already has a career-high 10 touchdown receptions this season, including five in Pittsburgh’s past three games. It’s heady territory for a player who began training camp hoping simply to hold off rookie Markus Wheaton for the third spot on the depth chart.
Now Cotchery is a vital part of an offense that is showing signs of getting it together. The Steelers (4-6) erupted for 37 points in a season-saving win against Detroit last Sunday, the final touchdown coming on a beautiful 20-yard lob from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a wide-open Cotchery at the goal line.
It was a play Roethlisberger said he “dusted off” when Cotchery came to the huddle and told his quarterback there was a chance to catch the Lions off guard.
“When he comes and tells you that something is there or something is open, you believe him, because he’s not just coming to tell you those things because he wants the ball,” Roethlisberger said. “He is a pro’s pro, and he works hard at what he does. You reward him.”
Asking for the ball has never been Cotchery’s way. He arrived in Pittsburgh three years ago after spending seven seasons as the metronome in the unique chaos that is the New York Jets. He averaged 67 receptions from 2006-2010 on Jets teams that fluctuated from poor to overachieving.
He came to the Steelers looking to win a Super Bowl. It hasn’t exactly worked out that way. Pittsburgh is just 24-18 since Cotchery came on and needs to get hot over the final six weeks to avoid missing the playoffs for the second straight season.
That lack of success, however, has only crystallized Cotchery’s importance. As one of the few players on the team to endure losing football — including a 4-12 season with New York in 2007 in which he was one of the few bright spots — Cotchery has proven to be a wise counselor to a group of young if still maturing receivers.
Brown, whose 77 receptions lead the NFL, called Cotchery “someone you can really learn from” thanks to his combination of work ethic and football IQ.
It’s an intelligence that is frequently on display in the red zone, where Cotchery consistently finds open space while opponents focus on his higher-profile teammates such as Brown and tight end Heath Miller.
Though Cotchery allows there are a lot of one-on-one opportunities because of the way teams defend Brown and Miller, that’s only half of it. His ability to dissect coverages and find the weakness is something that can’t be taught in the film room. It’s something that comes with experience.
“I call him ‘Old Reliable,’” Steelers safety Ryan Clark said. “Sometimes they have Ferraris out there. Sometimes they have some Bentleys. Jerricho is a conversion van. He’s always going to be there. He’s going to tote the family well. He’s going to keep everybody safe. That’s what Jerricho is.”