The Pittsburgh Steelers’ season ended a few weeks earlier that they had planned it to, but now that their 2015 campaign has drawn to a conclusion, it’s time to wrap things up and take stock of where they are and how they got there. Part of that process involves holding player exit meetings at the conclusion of each season.
Of course, we’re not privy to the specifics that go on in each of these meetings between head coach and player, and whomever else might be involved in any particular discussion, but if we were conducting them, it might go something like this.
Player: Markus Wheaton
Position: Wide Receiver
Experience: 3 Years
Once again, it’s hard to make much heads or tails of what the Steelers have in Markus Wheaton, because his latest season was yet another of ebbing and flowing. He started off with a couple of promising games before fading until after the bye week, when he found his greatest success of his career to this point. But then when he was asked to step up in the playoffs without Antonio Brown, he struggled.
The third-year former third-round draft pick has been in a sort of timeshare for the number two wide receiver role for the majority of the past two seasons with Martavis Bryant, who was drafted in the fourth round in the draft following him, and now Sammie Coates, a third-round rookie, just completed his first season with some promise.
But first, the numbers. The first thing that stands out when looking at his statistical output is that his production in terms of receptions per snap declined from last year to this past season. in 2014, he played 745 snaps, accounting for 67 percent of the offensive snaps. This past year, the number dipped a bit to 699, 65 percent of the snaps.
Dividing by play type, the Steelers attempted roughly 610 passes in 2014, and 590 passes in 2015. That drop off should not account for his receptions dropping from 53 to 44, however, but the increasing production from Brown, Bryant, and Darrius Heyward-Bey explain partially his fewer receptions.
He received eight fewer targets than last year, however, versus nine fewer receptions, which means that his average target-per-reception ratio improved, and so did his production in the air and after the catch, which saw his yards per catch jump from 12.2 to 17 this year.
He gained 644 yards a year ago and 749 this year, but more significant is that he produced five touchdown receptions versus only two a year ago. And much of this came in the final six games of the season, following the bye.
Obviously, it started with a career game in Seattle, during which he caught nine passes for 201 yards, but he continued to produce, catching at least three passes for at least 50 yards in five of the final six games, the sixth game going for 41 yards.
28 of his 44 receptions—64 percent—and 476 of his receiving yards—also 64 percent—came in the final six games—or 37.5 percent of the season. And those final six games also included four of his five touchdown receptions.
But in the two playoff games combined, he caught just seven passes for 53 yards, fumbled twice, losing one, and failed to come up with multiple tough receptions, particularly against the Broncos in the Divisional round when the Steelers needed him to step up in Brown’s absence.
Wheaton showed positive strides and was able to gain confidence with an increased number of targets, but if he is ever to be taken seriously as a full-time starter—which does not appear to be his destiny in Pittsburgh—he must still improve his reception rate overall, and particularly on contest or lower percentage throws.