Sunday’s AFC Divisional Round showdown between the Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers at Sports Authority Field in Mile High Stadium could be a showcase of the walking wounded, based on the injury reports for both teams released today.
While the Broncos have some key players banged up in safety Darian Stewart, outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, guard Max Garcia and cornerback Chris Harris, Jr have all been limited at some point in practice this week, the Steelers are severely hampered across the board coming out of last Saturday’s street fight with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams are all major question marks heading into Sunday’sgame, while Robert Golden, Will Johnson and Vince Williams have been limited this week with injuries.
The big three of Roethlisberger, Brown and Williams are the major question marks, not just for what they could bring if they do end up playing, but what the Steelers would get out of their replacements should they not be able to go against the Broncos.
Can Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman carry the load this week against the No. 1 run defense in football? Could Landry Jones seemingly do enough to lead the Steelers to a win against a great secondary? Who steps up in place of Brown?
The obvious answer to the last question has to be Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey, but who steps up as the fourth receiver?
Look no further than the 6’1”, 212-pound rookie receiver out of Auburn: Sammie Coates.
Sure, Coates has dressed in just six games this year — none of which has come since November 15 against the Cleveland Browns. Coates has hauled in just one catch for 11 yards on two targets, both of which came in the Thursday Night Football game against the Baltimore Ravens, October 1st.
Despite not getting much playing time on offense during his rookie season, Coates has not allowed the lack of action to knock his confidence or his dedication to preparation.
Will Graves, who covers the Steelers for the Associated Press, said that Coates has been getting work in all week with the first team in preparation of the possibility he’ll get a hat, Sunday, in the playoffs in place of Brown, who is still in the league’s concussion protocol.
Wheaton told Graves that the Steelers aren’t worried about Coates’ confidence level despite lack of playing time, which is a testament to the way the third-round pick has carried himself one year after being the go-to guy at receiver last year at Auburn.
While the goal is to have Brown and Roethlisberger as healthy as possible Sunday and on the field, Coates would be an added threat to a passing game that will have to rely on racking up yards-after-catch against the Broncos secondary, should Roethlisberger be unable to throw the ball more than 15 yards down the field.
Fortunately for the Steelers, that’s an area that Bryant and Wheaton have excelled in over the last half of the season. However, that might be Brown’s biggest strength of his game, so if the veteran receiver can’t go due to the concussion he suffered on a dangerous, dirty hit from Vontaze Burfict late in the fourth quarter, Saturday, the Steelers will have to come up with a way to make plays after short passes.
Bryant would be elevated to the No. 1 target, so that would force Heyward-Bey and Coates to step up and provide another threat for the passing game. Sure, Heyward-Bey has spotty hands and excels mostly as a deep threat, but he does have the speed and shiftiness to make plays in space.
The same holds true for Coates, who averaged 21.4 yards-per-catch during his career at Auburn.
I’m not saying Coates is in line for a big game, but if Roethlisberger is unable to push the ball more than 15 yards down the field, the Steelers will have to utilize their size and speed in space against a Broncos secondary that is great at covering, but happens to be suspect at times tackling in space.
This could be Coates’ time to really contribute to this team other than some special teams work.
He’s worked all year for a chance. It would be nice to see him get some reps against the Broncos defense, which is a big test itself.