Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Steelers' Markus Wheaton is on the rise

By Scott Brown
September 9, 2014

Markus Wheaton - Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers
Markus Wheaton #11 of the Pittsburgh Steelers catches the ball for a first down during the first quarter against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field on September 7, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
(Source: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images North America)

PITTSBURGH -- His quiet nature allowed him to slip out of the home locker room Sunday afternoon, accept a few congratulations and then slide onto one of the golf carts parked in a tunnel at Heinz Field. 

Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Markus Wheaton sat on the cart for a few minutes and checked his cell phone. 

His messages surely included more than a few congratulations after a breakout performance, and Wheaton seemed to bask in an anonymity he won't have moving forward. 

The second-year man needed just one game to equal the total number of catches he had last season and well eclipse his total receiving yards in a frustrating rookie campaign. 

Wheaton's six catches for 97 yards in a 30-27 win against the Browns didn't just help the Steelers avoid what would have been an epic collapse against one of their archrivals. The production and timely catches he delivered in his first NFL start may also portend big things for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers' passing game. 

Roethlisberger threw for 251 yards and a touchdown and completed 88.2 percent of his passes when he targeted wide receivers against the Browns, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The 11th-year veteran also averaged 14.8 yards per attempt with zero drops when throwing to his wideouts. 

Compare that to last season when Roethlisberger averaged 8.0 yards per attempt when targeting wide receivers and completed 63.1 percent of his passes with 10 drops. 

Granted one game is a small sample size but Wheaton's promise is immense. 

The 2013 third-round pick hauled in a 40-yard pass from Roethlisberger in the first half, a grab that required him to keep both feet in bounds on a ball that sailed toward the Steelers' sidelines. Wheaton's 20-yard catch late in the fourth quarter set up Shaun Suisham's 41-yard game-winning field goal, and it came after Roethlisberger changed the play at the line of scrimmage with precious seconds left on the play clock. 

That he targeted the player whose locker is next to his at Steelers' headquarters spoke volumes about the trust Roethlisberger has developed in Wheaton. 

"I threw it to him before he came out of his break," Roethlisberger said. "He turned his head and found the ball and made a great catch." 

There should be many more such plays if Wheaton's play in the opener is any indication. 

The 5-11, 182-pounder has everything the Steelers could want in a wide receiver to pair opposite Pro Bowler Antonio Brown. 

Wheaton is fast, a polished route runner, incredibly conscientious and healthy after a recurring finger injury stunted his development last season and limited him to six catches for 64 yards. 

His performance against the Browns may provide the one ingredient Wheaton needs to tie everything together: the belief he can play at this level. 

"Markus is building confidence in himself," Roethlisberger said, "and that I have in him."

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