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Rookie receiver Bryant has left unmistakable impact on Steelers

Tribune-Review
| Saturday, November 8, 2014 10:42 p.m
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Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant catches a touchdown in front of Ravens cornerback Dominique Franks during the fourth quarter Sunday, Nov. 2, 2014, at Heinz Field.
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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant celebrates a touchdown agianst the Colts Oct, 2014 at Heinz Field.
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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant beats the Colts' Darius Butler in the second quarter Sunday, Oct. 26, 2014, at Heinz Field.

The superlatives surrounding Steelers rookie receiver Martavis Bryant are evident.

His five touchdown receptions, an NFL record for receivers in the first three games of their career; the spark he has provided a once-underachieving offense that’s scoring about three touchdowns more per game since he was added to the lineup; the legitimate deep threat he provides the Steelers for the first time since Mike Wallace left two years ago.

What isn’t evident is how a fourth-round pick labeled as raw and as a project by the organization not long after it drafted him became not only the impetus of a record-setting offense but also the catalyst of a last-to-first, three-week turnaround in the AFC North heading into Sunday’s game against the New York Jets.

Former NFL safety Matt Bowen, who now writes for Bleacher Report, has a theory.

“He puts stress on top of the defense,” Bowen said. “He is a true deep-ball threat with a quarterback that trusts his ability as a rookie to get the ball. That opens up the middle of the field and creates even more opportunities for Roethlisberger to target other receivers.”

Is it as simple as that?

Bryant was one of the top-10 fastest receivers at the NFL Combine in February, running a 4.42-second, 40-yard dash. Combine speed doesn’t always translate into football speed, but it has for Bryant.

“It’s hard to cover 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds running a 4.3,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said.

But it’s not just his ability to get deep and provide a splash play. It’s also what his speed does to defenses.

“A lot of times people know where the ball is going to go, and there is nothing they can do about it,” receivers coach Richard Mann said not long after drafting Bryant.

Bryant has 10 catches for 167 yards, including receptions of 52 and 35 yards, but the way the Steelers have used him has opened up things underneath for Roethlisberger to pick apart even good defenses such as the Indianapolis Colts’ and Baltimore Ravens’.

“He looks like a 4.4 guy on tape,” Bowen said. “You can see how they are trying use that speed: a lot of deep balls.”

Bryant has been on the field for 59 pass plays in his three games. He has run a “9 route,” or fly pattern, 23 times and was targeted four times, resulting in a pair of receptions for 87 yards and a touchdown.

Add another 10 routes that are considered deep patterns, and 56 percent of Bryant’s routes have been downfield.

“He has obviously made plays when his number has been called,” Haley said. “I think we have something good going on at that position.”

Haley has paired Bryant with another speedster in Darrius Heyward-Bey, who ran a 4.3-second, 40-yard dash at the 2009 combine that helped make him a top-10 pick.

“The thought behind this all is to have guys do what they do best,” Heyward-Bey said. “Having Martavis do what he is doing is opening things up for Ben, for sure.”

Roethlisberger can’t deny that.

When Bryant has been on the field during pass plays, Roethlisberger was 36 of 53 for 506 yards and six touchdowns, not including sacks and penalties.

“I never thought it would be like this,” said Bryant, who is tied for eighth in the NFL in touchdowns despite playing only 94 snaps. “As I am getting better and knowing my assignments, they are adding a little bit more. It comes with knowing your plays and developing trust. The more they are trusting me, the more I am doing.”

The routes started to vary last week against the Ravens, suggesting the Steelers were bringing along Bryant slowly, but don’t expect it to change much.

“Why change something that’s working pretty good?” Roethlisberger said.

Roethlisberger threw for an NFL record 12 touchdowns the past two weeks and set a Steelers record with 522 yards passing against the Colts two weeks ago, so he’s fine keeping things the way they are.

So is Antonio Brown.

The NFL’s top receiver has 30 catches (42 targets) for 367 yards and three touchdowns since Bryant was inserted in the lineup. Although Brown is drawing double coverages, he is able to find more room to run underneath because of Bryant’s deep-play capabilities.

“Martavis has shown he is a deep threat, but he can do everything,” backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski said.

“He can help keep guys off of Antonio,” Roethlisberger said.

“Now, as an opposing defense, you have to account for (Brown), (Heath) Miller, (Markus) Wheaton and this young 6-4 wideout,” Bowen said. “You can’t take away every receiver. Plus, he’s making big plays as the No. 3 or No. 4 receiver. That’s a huge play to any offense when you get production outside of your top-two guys.”

How do you stop him?

The common strategy to stop a speedy receiver is to be physical with him at the line of scrimmage. However, teams have been reluctant to use press coverage on Bryant, and there’s a reason.

“You have a big guy that can run fast. If you stand out there, and he gets by you, it’s going to be all over quick,” Haley said.

So teams are mostly sitting back and allowing Bryant to run his routes.

Of the 59 pass plays on which Bryant has been on the field, he’s faced press coverage only one-third of the time. Only one catch came against press coverage, and it resulted in a 2-yard touchdown on a fade pattern, another Bryant strength.

Eventually a team will press Bryant, and it could be this week. Typically, the Jets press the single receiver in a formation, and Bryant has been in that spot a number of times.

“He really hasn’t seen a lot of press,” Bowen said. “I would like to get more there to evaluate his toughness, technique on the release when a defensive back really gets into his chest on the snap. But he has a lot of potential with his speed and frame. There is a lot work with here.”

Bryant said he’ll be ready for press coverage if it comes.

“I have been playing this game since I was 6 years old,” he said, “so whatever they do isn’t going to surprise me.”

Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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