Pittsburgh Steelers WR Markus Wheaton is finding himself in unfamiliar territory when the team lines up against the Cleveland Brown in Week 1 – starting and a chance to start big.
Named as the team’s #2 and “X” receiver, Wheaton will undoubtedly be the deep threat when he lines up against the Brownies. There are a few factors that would be contributors to Wheaton having a big game to start out the season.
1. Injuries – Injuries could make a large impact on Sunday. Wheaton is healthy and looking fast. The Browns top two corners have been fighting injuries all preseason long, which could prove advantageous for Wheaton (or any other Steelers receiver lining up on the outside). Buster Skrine has been nursing a broken thumb since August 18th when he had it surgically repaired. Skrine is expected to split time with rookie corner Justin Gilbert. Joe Haden has also been nursing a foot injury which forced him to sit out the last two preseason games. Both men practiced on Sunday, but both players could very well still feel the effects of their injuries and keep them from effectively covering Wheaton down the field.
2. Rookie backup – As was just stated, Skrine will more than likely be splitting time with rookie corner Justin Gilbert. Gilbert had a shaky preseason the entire time (wan’t everyone up in arms when the Steelers declined to draft this kid?). Gilbert is faster and a bit taller than Wheaton, but Gilbert’s technique and ability to adjust himself for the turn downfield has been less than stellar. Advantage Wheaton on this one who has been able to move beyond any kind of title such as “one trick pony.” Wheaton has moves as he tries to gain the upper hand going downfield, and Gilbert could find himself flatfooted and yards behind the 2nd year receiver.
3. Giving up the big play – Cleveland’s defense may have been ranked 8th in the league for giving up passing yards, but they weren’t so good in keeping teams out of the end zone through the air. The secondary allowed almost 30 TD’s through the air (29 to be exact), which was near the bottom of the league. There’s certainly a breakdown that occurs when receivers start streaking towards the endzone. Pair this with the injuries and Gilbert’s inexperience, and Wheaton could find himself locking in on a few bombs from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
4. Penalties – Lastly, the increase of penalties certainly swings the pendulum in Wheaton’s favor. The NFL is clamping down on holding and becoming a bit more liberal with letting the yellow fly when it comes to a DB facing off against a WR. Eventually, the Browns will have to decide if they will press Wheaton or not. Even if they don’t, once that ball is in the air, the advantage is all on Wheaton if he has any advantage in positioning.
I know that the Steelers want to keep that run game going. But, this first contest against the Browns is a perfect one to open up the passing game and pair it with the no-huddle offense (and few bubble screens). That could be a recipe that will have Wheaton and fellow wideout Antonio Brown hauling in catches all game long and many opportunities for some big plays and scores.
Here We Go!