For so many years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been viewed as something of a gold standard in the NFL. Right now, though, it seems like there’s a dent in the Steel Curtain that’s actually big enough to cause its fans to worry.
There are philosophical questions with the coaching staff, particularly offensive coordinator Todd Haley and his questionable play calling, and the roster is quickly aging. The latter could mean that the team might be ready to rely on young players to start games and make plays, which is out of the ordinary in Pittsburgh. And unless the coaching staff does an excellent job scheming and putting them in position to succeed, it could also mean that the team could take another step back this upcoming season.
One player who will likely be asked to make big plays is wide receiver Markus Wheaton. He was drafted in the third round out of Oregon State and the team likes him quite a bit, especially Haley. Following the selection, the frizzy-haired Haley described the Wheaton as “a pretty versatile, good, polished football player at the receiver position.” He also said that Wheaton could play inside or outside of the formation, while in comparison, the now departed Mike Wallace is primarily an outside receiver.
The contrast is an interesting one because of how much success the team had with Wallace running routes. Wherever Wallace lined up, he provided uncommon speed that enabled him to consistently threaten defenses vertically and simultaneously clear out additional running room for his teammates. He was able to help accelerate the development of younger receivers like Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown by giving them more space to work with, which they took advantage of by running routes which emphasized their strengths. Brown, for instance, does a very good job of working across the middle of the field, where he’s able to run precise routes because of his quick feet. Wallace helped Brown become an even more reliable receiver in that area by clearing out space, as seen against the New York Jets this past season.
On one play, Wallace and Brown were bunched together to the right side of the field where three Jets defenders stood before the snap. All three defenders were lined up at different depths to avoid a potential “pick” set by a receiver. The second cornerback and the safety would be responsible for Wallace, who was set to run a go-route that purposely drew their attention and gave Brown a one-on-one matchup against the closest cornerback.
When the play began, Wallace sprinted straight-ahead while Brown released diagonally, running outside the numbers and widening the assigned defender. Wallace’s speed forced the cornerback defending him to drop deep and turn his back to the sideline, protecting an outside breaking route, while the safety shifted his hips toward Wallace, essentially creating double coverage. That meant there was no one to help cover Brown.
Brown took advantage of the solo coverage by pivoting with his right foot and turning toward the middle of the field, which he then sprinted to and caught a big pass in between multiple defenders.
The gaping room is something that will be missed by the Steelers receivers, but not for long. While Wheaton is slower than Wallace, he is still plenty fast and plays faster than his 4.40 40-yard dash time. He has the ability to burn cornerbacks vertically and can run the same routes that Wallace ran, which is precisely why he could end up creating room for the receivers like Wallace did.
One example of him running a similar vertical route to the ones Wallace ran came against UCLA.
He’s lined up as the isolated X receiver on the right side of the field and is set to run a a double-move, vertical route at the snap. The coverage is Cover 3, which means that the cornerback across from him will drop into a deep-third responsibility while the middle safety will do the same. The safety is expected to help the cornerback defend Wheaton when the vertical route is executed. An issue arises, however, when the opposite receiver runs a crossing route that draws the safety up.
The safety takes false steps forward and attempts to intersect the opposite receiver’s route. That’s done at the same time as Wheaton stutter-steps, administering the double-move.
Wheaton bursts past the cornerback, creating multiple steps of separation, and catches the pass over his shoulder for the touchdown.
This is the type of route that could ultimately end up creating room for the other Steelers receivers to run in this upcoming season. Wheaton will have the opportunity to do it from the perimeter as an outside receiver as well as a slot receiver, which Haley implied during the post-draft interview. That’s something that the team didn’t do much of with Wallace, who only spent 12 percent of his snaps in the slot, according to Pro Football Focus.
With Wheaton running routes from the slot, he’ll be able to threaten defenses vertically through the middle of the field. If he runs routes through the seam against split-field safeties, he’ll force one of them to pinch inside and cover him, consequently leaving room down the sideline for another receiver. Against one safety, Wheaton will have the ability to run at him and pin them back on their heels, potentially creating one-on-one matchups outside and once again creating room for other receivers to make big catches, like he did against California.
He’s in the slot as part of Oregon State’s twin receiver set on the right side of the field. Cal has one deep safety (not pictured), who Wheaton will run directly at, and, on the outside, a cornerback who is responsible for the outside receiver. The outside receiver will run a go-route while Wheaton runs inside, both stressing the aforementioned deep defenders.
At the snap, Wheaton runs at the single-high safety, pinning him back on his heels, while the outside receiver threatens the cornerback vertically. Both have one-on-one matchups against the defenders and Wheaton’s route, in particular, ends up drawing the safety outside the left hash, which leaves space for the outside receiver to beat the cornerback and catch the pass.
It’s up to Haley to use Wheaton creatively, because it’s clear that the Oregon State product has the talent and versatility to flourish, if used correctly. With Wallace gone and top tight end Heath Miller injured, it appears that the team will have to rely on Haley to use Wheaton early and put him in position to make big plays.