Although he didn’t outright drop any of his targets on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, second-year Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton was clearly struggling to get on the same page with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
And that’s a problem, because the fast-growing rapport between the two was a big reason why the Steelers found any success early on this season.
Through the first four games of the season, Wheaton caught 19 of the 26 passes Roethlisberger sent in his direction for a catch ratio of 73 percent, doing so without dropping a single pass in that span.
He’s caught only five passes on his last 13 targets over the last two games, which started with his first dropped pass of the year a week ago.
Although he came up with his other lone target in that game for 17 yards, it seemed as though he was starting to fall out of sync.
Then on Sunday, he was targeted 11 times, coming up with only four of them for a total of 33 yards—his lowest total of the season outside of his one-catch performance last week.
Most worrying was the number of occasions in which it seemed that the quarterback and receiver didn’t know what the other was doing.
The first miscommunication in particular hurt. It came early in the game, a minute into the second quarter, with the Steelers leading by a field goal and looking for more.
The ground game had gotten the Steelers into the red zone and placed them in a third and three situation on the 17-yard line. Wheaton lined up in the slot on the left side of the field, on a route that seemed designed to get him turned around after five yards.
Roethlisberger let the ball go early, presumably expecting him to get his head turned around, but Wheaton only turned about 10 yards down the field. By the time he got turned around, the ball was already in his chest.
The frustration was visible from the quarterback, but it was hard to tell if it was frustration with himself or with his receiver missing a third-down opportunity and forcing the offense to settle for yet another red zone field goal opportunity on the road.
But it proved to be a pattern throughout the game, one way or the other. The Steelers’ next drive ended in another incompletion in Wheaton’s direction when Roethlisberger’s pass bounced off the receiver’s helmet as it went through his arms. Wheaton wanted a pass interference penalty, but it never came.
A third straight drive ended on third down with an incompletion in Wheaton’s direction when Roethlisberger threw 20 yards down the field to him as the ball skated off his fingertips.
No doubt some of those incompletions were the result of the defense. The quarterback and receiver both own some share of the blame as well. At this stage, it doesn’t matter where the problem lies; it simply needs to be resolved, and quickly.