After catching 53 passes for 644 yards in his second season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, wide receiver Markus Wheaton will be expected to build on that performance in 2015. That challenge figures to include him playing more in the slot this year and that’s something that he didn’t do a lot of when he was at Oregon State.
Last season, Wheaton ran 119 routes out of the slot and caught nine passes for 124 yards on 15 targets, according to Pro Football Focus.
“The plays I had last year were customized for me,” Wheaton reportedly said. “They made it out so I had some simple stuff. Being there full time, I am going to see a lot more.”
Being as fellow wide receiver Martavis Bryant has established himself as threat outside at the “Z” position, Wheaton can expect the simple stuff that he had last year will be replaced with more challenging tasks and especially being as offensive coordinator Todd Haley prefers to use quite a bit of 11 personnel groupings.
Former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward spent quite a bit of time playing in the slot during his career in Pittsburgh and that included him being not only the team’s best run blocking wide receiver from that spot, but the best in the entire league as well. That portion of Wheaton’s game needs a lot of improvement along with his ability to garner yards after the catch.
If Wheaton is unable to show that he can handle the slot role duties early on in the 2015 season, the Steelers might be forced to turn to rookie wide receiver Sammie Coates at some point to see if he can.
“He can play inside, he’s got the body to do it,” wide receivers coach Richard Mann said of Coates after he was selected in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Coates, however, much like Bryant during his rookie season, might take some time to develop, so in the meantime, Wheaton will likely be given a long leash.
Antonio Brown, who ran 107 routes out of the slot last season on his way to catching a league-leading 129 passes, believes his teammate will be up to the challenge as long as he’s on the same page with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
“It’s not difficult, it is just understanding how to run your routes,” Brown reportedly said, according to Kaboly. “He is super fast and quick, and that’s what you need because you are facing that third corner or linebacker a lot. On third downs, nine times out of 10 that’s where the ball is going to go.”