Around western Pennsylvania these days, there is a lot of excitement about the Pittsburgh Steelers offense, much of which stems from what is perceived as a deep and talented group of wide receivers, spearheaded by arguably the best in the league, two-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler Antonio Brown.
Admittedly, much of that excitement is more than justified, as Brown led the league last season in receptions and receiving yards, in the process breaking the franchise records for both. He also surpassed the franchise record for receiving touchdowns in a season with 13.
Last year also saw a breakout rookie season from Martavis Bryant, a 6’4” target with deceptive speed, which translated into 26 receptions for over 500 yards and eight touchdowns. He added a ninth touchdown during the Steelers’ lone playoff game.
Rounding out the group is third-year professional Markus Wheaton, who began the season as the starter and remained in that role for the majority of the year, although his snap count began to decline as Bryant established himself in the lineup. Still, he, too, posted over 50 receptions and over 500 receiving yards.
To that impressive group, the Steelers went back to the well to draft Sammie Coates in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft, a 6’1”, 212-pound speed receiver who has drawn some meaningful comparisons to Bryant, though they are not a direct match.
The addition of Coates has been given a great deal of attention, with many simply waiting for him to leapfrog Wheaton on the depth chart as fantasies about Bryant and Coates taking the top off of defenses with their size and speed run rampant.
Some have wondered if we will see the Steelers use four-receiver sets with greater frequency now that they have such a group of receivers at their disposal, but this is unlikely for a number of reasons, not the least of which being the fact that Coates is an unproven rookie who himself is regarded as a bit raw.
The more important reason that this is not likely to become a common occurrence in the offense is simply because it’s unnecessary, and disadvantageous, even to the passing game, given that the Steelers have the luxury of possessing above average weapons at the running back and tight end positions.
Both running back Le’Veon Bell and veteran tight end Heath Miller accounted for at least 65+ receptions for over 750 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns apiece. Using those statistics alone as a barometer, it would seem to make little sense to want to push either to the sidelines.
While the passing game is increasingly becoming the engine through which the offense runs, and the wide receiver position is obviously the most critical position on the receiving end of the passing game, the fact is that they are only one dimension of a multi-dimensional strategy.
Put simply, tight ends and running backs create matches that a slew of wide receivers on the field will not. It keeps open the possibility of a run, which sets up personnel mismatches against non-wide receiver pass catchers that teams with quality receivers at these positions can exploit.
The Steelers just so happen to be among these teams, so don’t expect to see Brown, Wheaton, Bryant, and Coates all on the field simultaneously very often at all.