Steelers’ Wheaton embraces expanding role
If Markus Wheaton were the envious type, it would have bothered him that rookie Martavis Bryant parlayed his first NFL catch into a sparkling, toe-tapping touchdown amid a jubilant Heinz Field crowd.
Instead, the second-year wide receiver rushed to celebrate with Bryant. Even with Bryant’s touchdown total at six, Wheaton patiently awaits his first career score on a kickoff return even as his role expands from possession receiver to kickoff returner.
“I think we struggled after the Browns game with kickoffs, so I think it was a good move for us. I’m just trying to work hard and get in when I can,” Wheaton said. “I’m trying to find ways to be active out there and contribute to what’s going on. I think we have a good thing going, so I’m trying to be as involved as I can.”
Wheaton isn’t likely to surrender kickoff-return duties when the Steelers host the New Orleans Saints next weekend at Heinz Field, considering he’s averaging a team-high 24 yards on nine returns. He would rank eighth in the AFC if he had the minimum 12 returns to qualify.
Wheaton’s added responsibility means fewer opportunities for rookie return specialist Dri Archer. The third-round draft pick arrived with high hopes, but his 17.9-yard kickoff return average is among the lowest in the NFL.
While Wheaton shifts his focus partly to kickoff returns, he proved on “Monday Night Football” he can excel at the flank, especially under pressure.
“Whenever your name is called, you have to be ready to make plays,” tight end Heath Miller said, “and a good example of that was Markus near the end of the game on that crucial drive. He hadn’t gotten a lot of action, but he got his number called on third-and-6.
“Whatever we’re asked to do, we have to embrace it. Obviously Markus has given us a spark on the kickoff return team while maintaining what he’s doing on offense.”
There are signs Wheaton is becoming a fine complement to Antonio Brown. That was the case Monday when the Steelers were trying to put away the Tennessee Titans.
Clinging to a three-point lead with 6:07 left in the game, the Steelers faced third-and-4 at their own 25. The Titans doubled up Brown and rerouted Miller. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was forced to look elsewhere. He sought out Wheaton.
With cornerback Jason McCourty clutching at his jersey, Wheaton gathered in the pass for 6 yards.
For Wheaton, it was a watershed moment. Roethlisberger never doubted he would deliver.
“It shows that Ben has a lot of trust in me to come to me in that situation,” Wheaton said. “It wasn’t the play call, so it shows the coaching staff has trust in me, too.
“I think that one catch symbolizes the kind of work I’ve been putting in. It’s only one catch, but it was a big-time situation. I feel like a lot of people don’t see much in it. Yet I think Ben sees it.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected].