When the Pittsburgh Steelers lost both Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery in free agency—two of their top three wide receiver targets, and 16 of Ben Roethlisberger’s 28 touchdown passes—the front office didn’t panic.
They’d planned for this.
A big part of that plan was the drafting of Markus Wheaton in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft.
Even though he had an unproductive and frustrating rookie season, catching just six passes for 64 yards, head coach Mike Tomlin remained adamant that he was going to be a core part of his team in the near future.
He exceeded his rookie totals in the opening game, matching his six receptions, but doing so while collecting 97 yards in the process in his first career start.
From fourth on the depth chart with sparse playing time to playing nearly every down, year two is like night and day for Wheaton. And the Steelers not only expected that from him, they downright needed it. Literally.
It was his two receptions with under 30 seconds to play—first for 11 yards, then for 20—that allowed the Steelers to get into field goal position and give Shaun Suisham the chance to make Pittsburgh a winner on opening day.
Not only that, he showed that he has the speed to stretch the field earlier in the game, beating rookie first-round cornerback Justin Gilbert with speed down the right sideline and showing impressive awareness and footwork to stay inbounds for a 40-yard reception.
Wheaton brought in a seven-yard reception two plays later in the red zone that got LeGarrette Blount on the field on third and one, which led to a seven-yard touchdown run by the big back on the following play.
The second-year receiver was targeted only seven times for his six catches, and the one incompletion came on a deep ball that was not in a position to be caught, in part due to the pressure put on the quarterback.
It was a good start for Wheaton, who must prove not to his coaches and teammates, but to opposing defenses and coordinators, that he is a serious threat lining up across his All-Pro teammate, Antonio Brown.
Brown, meanwhile, caught six passes of his own, all during the first half, for 116 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown from Roethlisberger on the run.
They did this all without the services of Lance Moore and rookie Martavis Bryant, relying on Wheaton’s draft classmate, Justin Brown, to assume the role of slot receiver. Veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey further solidifies the team’s depth at wide receiver.
And just in case you were wondering, Sanders equaled Wheaton’s receptions last night, but for only 77 yards. Cotchery caught four passes for 32 yards to Justin Brown’s three receptions for 38 yards.