Today, NFL.com released a new installment of their top 20 games of 2015. Today’s top-20 game was a week 12 barn-burner in Seattle in which the Steelers came up short.
Seahawks’ cornerback Richard Sherman proved that he was the only man in the NFL up to the task of covering the Steelers’ Antonio Brown. By all accounts, Sherman won that battle. With Brown’s dominant play missing from the game plan, the Steelers needed to look elsewhere to move the ball.
The offense were already without running back Le’Veon Bell, and the ground game was sputtering in Seattle. DeAngelo Williams did have a score on the ground and over 100 scrimmage yards, but the offense that day came largely from Markus Wheaton.
More than once, Wheaton blew past the Seahawks’ secondary on his way to nine receptions for 201 yards and a touchdown. The third year receiver showed that he could line up on the outside and take the top off of a defense.
Wheaton’s week 12 explosion started what was the most productive stretch of his career. In the last six games of the 2015 season, Wheaton finished with 28 receptions, 476 yards, and four touchdowns. Compared with his 16-game totals (44-749-5), it is clear that Wheaton was coming on down the stretch.
In truth, Wheaton’s first three years as a pro compare favorably to those of Antonio Brown. Through three seasons with the Steelers, Brown had totaled 151 receptions, 2,062 yards, and five touchdowns. Wheaton has 103 receptions, 1,460 yards, and five touchdowns. Sure, Brown has Wheaton beat in yards and receptions, but there are a few things to consider.
When you compare the targets you begin to see why Brown has much more production. In his first three years, Brown was targeted 247 times. Wheaton was targeted 179 times. Brown ended up with 8.3 yards per target and Wheaton with 8.1. Both managed five scores with their respective targets.
Why was Brown targeted so much more? Well, it wasn’t because he was an unstoppable all pro receiver, because he wasn’t…yet. His main competition for targets came from Mike Wallace, Hines Ward, and Heath Miller. Those players had defined roles in the Steelers offense, but none of them took over games.
Mike Wallace might have been the best deep threat in the league at the time, but he was a one-trick pony. Ward was already on the tail end of his career and far from his best production. Miller was primarily a blocking tight end and a safety blanket for Ben Roethlisberger.
That all led to great opportunity for Brown. As a skilled route runner and reliable receiver, Brown found a nice role for himself and his agility in the Steelers’ offense. He had all of the tools that many of the other options lacked. Receiver Emmanuel Sanders–a rookie the same year as Brown–had many of those same skills, but Brown’s work ethic and performance gave him the edge.
By 2013, Ward had retired, Wallace had left in free agency, and Brown became the top dog–a spot he has yet to relinquish. Enter Markus Wheaton. The established receivers at this point were Brown, Sanders, and Miller. Wheaton was only a rookie, but looked like he might have a shot to contribute. However, another receiver had an inside track to the number three spot.
Jericho Cotchery had signed with the Steelers back in 2011, but remained buried on the depth chart behind some serious talent (the receiving corp self-titled “Young Money”). In 2013 he had two seasons in the system and an opportunity. Cotchery turned out to be a very good receiver for the Steelers, complimenting the speed and agility of Brown and Sanders with experience, reliability, and instincts in the red zone.
When Wheaton entered the league he had even more talent ahead of him in the Steelers’ offense than Brown saw in 2010. By the time Wheaton came to the team, Brown’s playmaking ability was calling for more and more targets while another weapon was emerging.
The round before they selected Wheaton, the Steelers selected Le’Veon Bell. Bell turned into a do-it-all running back early in his career. A patient runner, a stalwart blocker, and an adept route runner, Bell was demanding targets as well. As a rookie Bell hauled in an astounding 45 receptions–a total he would nearly double the following year.
So, Wheaton’s rookie year was a redshirt year, but after the 2013 season Cotchery and Sanders were gone in free agency. The door was open for Wheaton to have a breakout year. He didn’t have one. Instead the Steelers’ offense focused on Brown and Bell. The dynamic pair combined for 506 touches, 3,926 yards from scrimmage, and 24 touchdowns.
Those are monster numbers. Two individual single-season performances that will be remembered in Steelers’ history. On top of Brown’s and Bell’s ridiculous statistical impact, Wheaton’s involvement took a hit from the emergence of rookie receiver Martavis Bryant. Bryant took the NFL by storm in the second half of his rookie campaign, proving that he was a force that defenses would need to consider, and one that Roethlisberger needed to feed.
Early in his career Brown found himself on a talented offensive depth chart, but it was talent on the decline or on the way out. When Wheaton came to the Steelers, it was behind talent on the rise.
Wheaton has improved in his young career and 2015 was quietly his best season. I say quietly because even his performance in Seattle was overshadowed by a loss and the game that Doug Baldwin had. The improvement will continue.
The Steelers might be faced with the suspension of Martavis Bryant and the retirement of Heath Miller in 2016, but Wheaton is up to the task of producing. The opportunity is his for the taking.