Pittsburgh Steelers Friday Fades: Markus Wheaton, Le'Veon Bell

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The cliche with the Pittsburgh Steelers has always been “rugged defense” and all that sort of stuff, but it’s clear that they have transitioned briefly to a team where offense reigns supreme. In fact, the Steelers offense has the potential to be one of the top ten units in the NFL with the running back duo of Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount, Antonio Brown, solid TE Heath Miller, franchise QB Ben Roethlisberger, rookie wrinkle Dri Archer, veteran Lance Moore, and the young wide receiver duo of Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant. This offense has a star quarterback, hard-nosed backs, and electric playmakers in the passing game. Plenty will hinge on how young guys develop and the play of the offensive line, but it’s difficult not to really like how the Steelers offense looks on paper.

1. Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant ready for big years

It isn’t a coincidence to me that the Steelers drafted the best deep threats in the draft class two years in a row, and it’s time for Wheaton to make a big impact on the Steelers offense with Emmanuel Sanders gone. Despite averaging just 6.5 yards per target and catching less than 60% of everything thrown at him, Sanders still caught 67 passes after seeing a whopping 112 targets. Jerricho Cotchery, who was a red zone maven, saw 76 targets, so there’s plenty of room for two targets to emerge in the Steelers offense.

Those two talented players are already on the roster in Wheaton and Bryant, and both are fantasy football sleepers to watch for. Wheaton could easily hit triple digit targets next season, but it’s important to remember that the Steelers will probably run the ball a bit more last season. Le’Veon Bell’s carries (we’ll get to him later) may increase from 244, and LeGarrette Blount will probably get triple digit carries after the hodge-podge of Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, and Felix Jones combined for 108 rushes.

But even if there are “only” 188 targets for Wheaton, Bryant, and the reliable Moore to share, it’s more than enough for both players to make an impact. Wheaton and Bryant are excellent at stretching the field vertically, and Ben Roethlisberger’s playing style is conducive to deep attacks. Not only does he have a cannon arm, but he is famous for extending plays, which could help his two young burners take advantage, especially if defenses breakdown or find it difficult to keep up.

While Bryant comes into the NFL as a raw receiver out of Clemson, Sammy Watkins’s partner in crime has a terrific size/speed combination and plenty of athleticism. His hands and route-running are iffy, but they aren’t terrible. If he can work a bit on his route-running, then he can have a Terrance Williams-like impact (maybe more) next season.

2. Ryan Shazier, Cam Thomas, Stephon Tuitt key against run

The Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback look like the team’s biggest weakness on paper, but I’m not too worried about their pass defense next season. Jarvis Jones will probably take the next step forward, Jason Worilds should be solid, and they have a good safety duo intact (barring sudden digression from Mike Mitchell and Troy Polamalu, which isn’t impossible). They were tenth in the league last year in yards per attempt allowed in the passing game, which is pretty good. Unfortunately, they allowed 4.3 yards per carry on the ground, which was “good” for 21st. Teams ran the ball 433 times on them, and there’s almost a 500-yard swing between their rushing yards and the amount of yards they allowed last season.

Not only do they look set to gain more rushing yards next season with Bell and Blount forming a talented running back duo, but they also look ready to reduce the amount of rushing yards they allow thanks to the addition of two rookies. Ryan Shazier is known for his speed and coverage ability, but I’ll be shocked and disappointed if the Ohio State product isn’t a significant upgrade in run defense. With only Lawrence Timmons proving to be remotely effective against the run at ILB, the Steelers were forced to ask safety Troy Polamalu to bring his beastly self to help against the run.

I think Stephon Tuitt could be a key for the Steelers against the run, because both Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood (well, what could we expect from him) were just about useless in this regard last season. Keisel looked done and was hobbled greatly because of an injury, whereas Hood never had an excuse. Cam Thomas was a nifty addition to help plug up holes in the running game, but I want to see how much Tuitt can help out in that regard when called upon. An inconsistent player in college who could dominate, some analysts gave Tuitt high marks for his work against the run.

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