With second-year Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant in the process of serving a four-game suspension, the offense will be relying heavily upon veteran wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey in the interim, who is expected to see the majority of snaps when the offense shows three wide receiver looks.
In spite of the fact that the Steelers have been well aware of the chances of Bryant being suspended, and even after learning of the fact, however, the coaching staff evidently took a cautious approach in terms of getting him work during the preseason, rather than giving him plenty of reps working with Ben Roethlisberger.
In fact, in the Steelers’ five preseason games, Heyward-Bey was inactive for three of them, including the Hall of Fame game as well as the final two preseason games—the two played after learning of Bryant’s suspension.
Assuming that he was a healthy scratch for all three of those games—and it is a fair assumption to make considering the circumstances and his known level of participation during practice surrounding those games—it is apparent that the coaching staff valued his health over his chemistry in working with the starting quarterback when opening the regular season.
During the two preseason games in which he played, Heyward-Bey caught four passes for a total of 35 yards, with a long reception of 11. He also added one carry for four yards. All of his receptions—all of his targets, in fact—quarterback other than Roethlisberger under center.
Last season, his first working with the Steelers, Heyward-Bey’s experience on offense was limited, particularly later in the season, recording just three receptions for 33 yards. He was only targeted five times during the regular season on approximately 125 snaps.
His most extensive playing time last season came against the Colts in what was a record-setting day on offense for Roethlisberger, but that was also a low point for Heyward-Bey in spite of the fact that it resulted in his longest reception. The only problem is that he fumbled the ball trying to record yards after the catch.
His playing time was curtailed heavily after that, posting a season-high of 29 snaps in that game. Given the frequency with which the Steelers utilize the 11 personnel package, there is a reasonable chance that Heyward-Bey surpasses that figure in the team’s opening game of the regular season.
While he has no doubt worked with Roethlisberger a good bit in practice—especially this week, given that Bryant is banned from working with the team on the field—it would still have been reassuring to have seen him get more reps with the quarterback in some real game situations.
But the truth is that Heyward-Bey is a veteran receiver whose only true knock is his catching technique, which results in poorly handled and often dropped balls. He does, however, know what he is doing, and more reps will not make his hands any better, so perhaps it was for the best to prioritize his health (and the chance to evaluate the other receivers) over his chemistry with the quarterback.