The Pittsburgh Steelers chose to keep six wide receivers on their 53-man roster this year, a rarity that hasn’t been seen in any meaningful sense for a while, and it appears that they’ll be needing that depth early.
The last time they carried six receivers was when Arnaz Battle was first signed in 2010 as a special teams ace. He played eight total snaps on offense that year and did not record a reception, or any other statistics.
The Steelers are hoping the bottom of their wide receiver depth chart is a bit more dynamic in 2014, as it doesn’t currently seem that either rookie Martavis Bryant or veteran slot receiver Lance Moore will be able to play the season opener.
Bryant injured his shoulder while being tackled after a catch in the final preseason game, while Moore has been dealing with a groin injury. After practicing on a limited basis earlier in the week, he did not participate on Wednesday or Thursday.
That means Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Brown could be in for some significant playing time, both in their first game as members of the Steelers. Rookie running back/wide receiver Dri Archer could also see more time on the perimeter as a result.
Heyward-Bey had been arguably the most impressive player on offense for the Steelers over the final two preseason games after being limited early in training camp with a concussion. He caught nine passes for 98 yards and a touchdown in those two games
Brown, meanwhile, wasn’t very active on the stats sheet, but he saw a lot of playing time, and based on the data, may be the most likely to line up with the starting receivers in the slot.
During the preseason, he ran 76 routes, 55 of which came out of the slot, or nearly three quarters of his routes run.
Heyward-Bey, meanwhile, ran only six routes from the slot of his 52 total routes. The X Factor would be how they choose to use their starters, however.
Brown did get his work in with the starting offense during the preseason, and during that playing time, he would occasionally line up on the outside with Markus Wheaton moving into the slot. Nearly a fifth of his routes—12 of 64—were run out of the slot.
If that continues to hold true, that could open the door for Heyward-Bey, the veteran, to get on the field and play on the outside with Wheaton moving into the slot.
Both players have similar skill sets. Brown is a bit more versatile in terms of where he can line up, but Heyward-Bey is more experienced, and has been playing well lately. He came in with a reputation of having bad hands, but he didn’t drop any of his 12 targets during the preseason.
Either way, the Steelers certainly appear to be in better shape than one might think they would be with possibly two of their top four or five receivers missing a game thanks to their efforts to replenish the unit this offseason.