One of the biggest questions the Pittsburgh Steelers are looking at on the offensive side of the ball is who their third wide receiver is going to be, working alongside Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, the latter of whom was immediately put into work with the first-team unit after returning from suspension.
While the Steelers spent the majority of their offensive snaps with three wide receivers on the field, they don’t use as many three-receiver sets as become the norm—at least that proved to be the case last season, which could be an aberration due to injuries and the late-season focus on running the ball.
But with that in mind, I think it would be a worthwhile service to look at the Steelers’ wide receiver group from last season relative to how they performed, specifically, when lining up in the slot in passing situations, because, generally speaking, the third wide receiver is probably going to spend the vast majority of time in that role.
Over the course of the next several days, I am going to review the application for each candidate for the job based on their 2016 performance there where applicable—which will not be the case for rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster for obvious reasons, while at the same time serving the purpose of talking about each player relative to their ability to play in the slot.
Candidate 3: Darrius Heyward-Bey
This may not sound like the most logical candidate, but former first-round draft bust Darrius Heyward-Bey was, by usage, the player outside of Eli Rogers that is still on the roster who featured the highest percentage of his work out of the slot last season.
As I covered in the introductory overview of this series, Heyward-Bey saw more than a third of his 139 snaps on passing plays come while lined up in the slot position. In those 48 slot snaps, he was targeted eight times, but only caught four of them, for 61 yards. Only one was a drop, however, and his targets were largely of the deep variety. He also saw the most targets from Landry Jones, in fairness.
He did average over 15 yards per reception out of the slot one of which was a touchdown pass that went for 31 yards, and another that went for 14. Only Rogers had as many as Heyward-Bey’s two touchdowns out of the slot, but he also had a pass intercepted while targeted.
It is worth pointing out that while he played 48 snaps out of the slot on passing downs, he had 81 total snaps out of the slot, meaning that he got a lot of work in that role on running downs, pointing out his value as a blocker.
What the Steelers value out of Heyward-Bey’s ability to line up out of the slot, of course, is his speed on passing downs, and his blocking ability on running downs. His average depth of target on nine targets (including a penalty snap) out of the slot was an even 21 yards. Facing smaller cornerbacks, his speed and his size can be imposing regardless of the situation.