In the five games leading up to Sunday’s match with the Seahawks, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton hauled in a total of seven catches for 45 yards. That was his total level of production since Martavis Bryant returned to the lineup.
But in Seattle, he went off for a career game, establishing new highs in receptions with nine and yards with 201. It was the first 100-yard game of his career, and he was just the fourth wide receiver in team history to crack 200. Antonio Brown had only become the third a few weeks earlier.
When the Steelers host the Colts tomorrow night, however, it’s fully possible that the third-year receiver is limited to just one or two catches again.
Sunday was not Wheaton’s breakout game, the one where he showed to the world that he was capable of being a significant contributor on offense. As far as Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger, and the offense is concerned, they already believed that.
But that is not his role in the offense, an offense built on essentially getting Brown as many touches as possible as arguably the most dangerous wide receiver in the league, an All-Pro two times running and readily heading for a third such bid.
Sure, the breakout game may earn him a couple of extra looks from Roethlisberger per game, possibly. But if you ask around the locker room, you wouldn’t find anybody surprised by the level at which Wheaton was able to produce, even against the league’s second-ranked passing defense at the time.
Of course, it was that secondary in part that helped set up his big day. With Richard Sherman for the most part locking down on Brown, and Bryant finding inconsistent production against Deshawn Shead, Wheaton often found himself not only in favorable matchups, but with the best matchup.
That more than anything is why Roethlisberger looked in his direction so often, frequently as the third read, as would typically be expected coming out of the slot. The Steelers bet that their third receiver was better than the Seahawks’ third cornerback, and the bet paid off.
Where things go from here is yet to be determined. It’s true that Wheaton was finally able to go off and fully showcase his talents, making some excellent contested grabs and doing so at key moments. At the very least, that will improve Roethlisberger’s comfort level in targeting him in the clutch.
But if it goes back to the usual couple of catches a game for Wheaton, he would be the one who would be able to handle it after getting a taste of the spotlight. Haley praised the third-year receiver’s professionalism, a player who doesn’t get too low with the lows or too high with the highs.
Sunday was a new peak, but tomorrow is a new opportunity that can fall anywhere on the spectrum. Wheaton has stayed poised through every test that he has faced throughout his career, from reporting late as rookie due to school obligations, to dealing with injuries his first year, to struggles mid-season last year, and then the rise of Bryant. But when his opportunity comes, he has the mental composition to seize it.