With Martavis Bryant reportedly not practicing on Friday, it is beginning to appear likely he’ll sit out this week’s game against San Diego after tweaking his knee in practice on Monday. Many Steelers fans were obviously salivating to have Bryant back on the field following his four-game suspension to begin the year, as I’m sure offensive coordinator Todd Haley was as well. The second-year receiver led the NFL last season by averaging over 21 yards per catch (among applicable players), establishing himself as one of the top vertical weapons in the game.
While Bryant’s absence will not doubt affect the Steelers game plan, it shouldn’t hurt their chances of coming away victorious in San Diego on Monday night. Bryant has been a dynamic deep threat since early last season, while the rest of his game has developed as his route tree becomes more advanced. That isn’t to say he’s a one-trick pony, far from it, but Bryant’s biggest strength may very well have been neutralized by a Chargers defense defending the deep ball as well as almost any team in football.
San Diego has allowed just ten catches of 20 yards or more in the first four games this season, tied for the third best mark in the league (the Steelers are first, giving up just five passes of over 20 yards). The Chargers are even stingier on true deep shots, giving up just two 40+ yard passes this season, one of which was on a check-down to a running back. There simply hasn’t been a lot of options down the field for teams when battling this Chargers secondary.
That’s not to say Bryant wouldn’t be able to make his magic happen anyway, as the big receiver has certainly had success deep against some of the better secondaries in football before. Perhaps the silver lining of his potential absence will be the Steelers probably emphasis on running the football against the 29th ranked run defense in the NFL.
Le’Veon Bell should get no shortage of touches in this one, as he and the Pittsburgh offensive line should be able to establish dominance against a San Diego defense giving up 126.8 rushing yards per game at a clip of nearly five yard per carry. The Chargers have also allowed five rushes of 20 yards or more, tied for the second worst mark in football. With Bryant likely out and Markus Wheaton nursing a minor ankle injury, expect to see Bell and DeAngelo Williams star as the main protagonists for the Steelers offense Monday night.
There is also the fact that the much-maligned Darrius Heyward-Bey has played very well in Bryant’s absence, giving the team deep threat capabilities, as well as big plays in the short-intermediate areas of the field. I’ve been as surprised by anyone at Heyward-Bey’s consistency, as he has yet to drop a pass this season, albeit despite several close calls. He isn’t Bryant by any stretch of the imagination, but the seven-year veteran has proven more than capable of stepping up when the team needs him.
Bryant would have a substantial size advantage over all the Chargers defensive backs, as San Diego sports one of the shorter defensive backfields in football. That fact didn’t keep the Chargers from holding Calvin Johnson to two catches for 39 yards, or A.J. Green to three catches for 45 yards when they faced the star receivers earlier this year. In fact, San Diego has allowed more than 50 yards receiving to just one wide receiver this season, the Browns’ Travis Benjamin, who reeled in six catches for 79 yards last week. It should be noted that the Chargers were without top cover corner Jason Verrett in that game, the second-year corner from TCU who practiced in a limited fashion on Friday.
The reality is that as dangerous as Bryant is, his skills may not have been as helpful against San Diego as they will be against upcoming teams on the schedule.Antonio Brown and co. are more than capable of carrying the passing game for another week despite Michael Vick’s deficiencies, while the Steelers rely heavily on a run game that should see plenty of success against an underwhelming Chargers defensive front.