Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin wanted to activate rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant for this game in order to help contribute in the red zone, where the team had become the worst in the league prior to last night.
So, of course, he caught a 35-yard touchdown pass instead, using his speed rather than his height to make an impact.
But it certainly wasn’t a bad way to begin his Steelers career, after spending the first six games on the bench waiting for an opportunity. And that opportunity came at the expense of first-year wide receiver Justin Brown, who logged over 250 snaps in that span as the team’s primary slot receiver and run blocker.
Bryant, of course, now has more touchdown receptions than Brown has, the latter having caught 12 passes in the first six games for 94 yards. Bryant debuted with two catches for 40 yards, the second catch helping to set up a late field goal.
There are many who observe the team closely during practice who truly feel that the rookie was not ready for this prior to this past week. But after a few early struggles in practices, he gradually improved throughout the week—with the advantage of an added day for the Monday night game—and played well in his select snaps.
Ben Roethlisberger looked his way deep throughout the game, starting on the opening drive, and although the pair only connected on one of his four deep targets, he still showed well in making the effort to chase down the ball.
If Bryant can help this offense incorporate a more legitimate vertical aspect, it will only serve to make the unit stronger, which has scored an average of 28 points now in three home games, having won two of them.
Those points will be needed as well, because the Steelers defense at home has also been allowing over 25 points per game, including the 23 scored by the Houston Texans last night.
While it may be too early to speculate—and Tomlin warned against that during his post-game press conference—one has to wonder if the 6’4” impressed his coaches enough to be a frequent fixture on game day.
Should that happen, it will most likely continue to come at the expense of Brown, who lost out for a helmet to Darrius Heyward-Bey, a more veteran player with similar blocking talents, better special teams play, and frankly no less reliable hands, based on a small body of evidence.
It doesn’t seem as though Brown has played to the level that the coaching staff had expected when they put him into such a key role all through the preseason and up until now during the regular season, after he spent his rookie year on the practice squad. Bryant’s 40 yards is more than Brown had in any one game.
Meanwhile, Markus Wheaton failed to record a catch in the last game, having been targeted twice on third down. Again, it’s still early, but any jolt that Bryant can provide behind Antonio Brown would be a welcome addition to the receiving corps right now.