When the Pittsburgh Steelers visit the Denver Broncos in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs on Sunday night, they’ll do so with a banged up quarterback, without their leading rusher, and perhaps their most important offensive weapon.
The numbers will say Antonio Brown is arguably the best in the NFL as he tied for No. 1 in receptions (136) and ranked No. 2 in yards (1,834) during the regular season. He also caught seven balls for 119 yards in the Steelers’ wild-card win over Cincinnati. However, he will miss Sunday’s game with a concussion after taking a headshot from Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict in last week’s victory.
Brown’s dynamic route running and breakout speed make him a threat like few others in the NFL and his absence is no small matter for Pittsburgh. In the Steelers’ Week 15 victory over Denver at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Brown led the way with 16 receptions for 189 yards and two touchdowns as Pittsburgh scored 24 unanswered points to beat the Broncos 34-27.
Against this vaunted Broncos defense, head coach Mike Tomlin will need the depth of the Steelers receiving corps to collectively pick up the slack left by Brown’s injury.
Below we look at the rest of the Steelers’ receiving corps we can expect to see on Sunday night:
Bryant’s name is one we’re learning quickly after the acrobatic touchdown catch he made in Cincinnati. He caught five passes for 29 yards and a score in the wild-card win and becomes Ben Roethlisberger’s No. 1 receiver in Denver. He caught 50 balls in total, finishing second to Brown in receiving touchdowns (6) and yards (765). Bryant finished the Week-15 meeting in Denver with 10 receptions for 87 yards.
Wheaton, who has more than three receptions in just three games this season, gets an expanded role as well. One of those games was against Denver in Week 15 when Wheaton contributed six receptions and 62 yards. His five touchdowns are third on the team and this opportunity could be a huge one for Wheaton as he slots into the No. 2 role. In the regular season, Wheaton had 44 catches for 749 yards and five touchdowns.
Heyward-Bey finds himself possibly the No. 3 receiver going into Sunday night’s matchup. He didn’t have a catch last week and caught just 21 balls for 314 yards this season. Heyward-Bey did have two touchdowns but both of those came in the first four weeks of the season.
No Pittsburgh receiver even caught half as many as Brown but tight end Heath Miller came in second with 60 receptions for 535 yards and two touchdowns. Miller caught just two passes for nine yards last week but is likely to player a much larger role as Roethlisberger’s most reliable target.
The Auburn product is an honorable mention here as he is activated for the first time since the Nov. 15 game against the Cleveland Browns. His lone catch for 11 yards came in Week 4 against Baltimore but Coates might be the guy Denver is least prepared to see. Maybe the rookie’s speed and strength can help him be the next man up in Pittsburgh’s time of need.