Although they are not a franchise known for utilizing them early, a number of Pittsburgh’s rookies have played starring roles in recent weeks. Jarvis Jones and Vince Williams have turned in adequate play at the linebacker position, Shamarko Thomas was making his presence felt on special teams and in the “dime” and “quarter” packages as a defensive back until he hurt his ankle against the Bills, while Le’Veon Bell has showed off his versatility on the offensive side of the ball as the team’s leading rusher.
While those four have garnered most of the headlines during Pittsburgh’s 3-6, Markus Wheaton made his presence felt in Pittsburgh’s passing game against the Detroit Lions during yesterday’s game.
To be fair to Wheaton, the rookie pass-catcher could not parlay his strong preseason (nine catches, 139 yards, one touchdown) performance into success early in the year since he was buried on the depth chart behind veterans like Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, and Jerricho Cotchery. It also didn’t help that Heath Miller returned from his injury earlier than many expected to boot, and the rookie’s touches and opportunities to shine on the offensive side of the ball were limited.
Worst of all for Wheaton, he broke his right pinky finger during Pittsburgh’s loss to Minnesota in Week Four. The injury and the subsequent surgery eventually sidelined the former Oregon State Beaver for the next five weeks, and Wheaton only returned to the lineup against the Bills two Sundays ago.
As I stated previously though, the rookie showed up and helped out in Pittsburgh’s passing game yesterday at Heinz Field against the Lions. Overall, Wheaton hauled in three passes for 38 yards including a 21-yard catch and run late in the second quarter. After being targeted five times against Detroit and looking like he is back to 100 percent, one must ask the following question:
Will “Big Ben” and Todd Haley try to target the rookie more often in the passing game over the coming weeks?
I certainly hope that “Big Ben” and Haley can, especially since opponents will have a devil of a time trying to stop Brown, Sanders, Cotchery, and Miller if and when they are on the field along with Wheaton. Sanders exited Pittsburgh’s most recent game with a foot injury, so there could be some opportunities for the former Beaver to shine in the near future.
The rookie’s speed is a tremendous asset, and one has to believe that he can help to create more space for his teammates and himself if he is able to utilize it correctly.
I for one am intrigued to see how much playing time Wheaton receives on the offensive side of the ball during the final six weeks of the regular season, and the addition of him to Pittsburgh’s passing game could make an already improving unit even more dangerous down the stretch.
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