Forget Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey Must Step Up in Playoffs with Antoino Brown Out vs. Broncos

The Pittsburgh Steelers injury report for the Divisional playoff showdown vs. the Denver Broncos is in, and the news is grim for Steelers Nation: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is listed as questionable, Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams are listed as out.

  • Gotta love going up against the NFL’s number 1 defense without at least 2 of your 3 top offensive weapons.

Antonio Brown’s absence is not much of a surprise. While Pittsburgh reports indicated that he was likely to play, several national outlets predicted he would not. Score one for the national media over the Pittsburgh media. However, those are issues for the Watch Tower to sort out.

Now the focus falls on beating the Denver Broncos without the Steelers 2015 team MVP.

Who Steps Up with Antonio Brown Down?

With Antonio Brown out vs. the Broncos, the Steelers need someone to step up. Just how badly will the Steelers miss Antonio Brown? In 2015 Brown:

  • Accounted for 29% of the Steelers offensive yardage
  • Caught 34% of completed passes and 23% of passes thrown
  • Was the target of 32% of all passes thrown
  • Scored 31% of the Steelers offensive touchdowns

Replacing a man who has accounted for about a third of your offense is no simple task. With Brown gone, most people are looking to 4th round draft pick Sammie Coates as “The Next Man Up.”

That’s logical, because with Brown out Coates will not only get a helmet, he get playing time. And the Steelers are going to need him to catch whatever comes his way, regardless of whether that comes from Ben Roethlisberger’s hands, Landry Jones‘ or Michael Vick‘s.

  • But to expect a rookie with one catch to his name to fill the void left by Antonio Brown borders on ridiculous.

The Steelers first line of defense in Brown’s absence are Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. Both men have had their ups and downs during the season, but both have shown they’re capable of making plays. But to some degree or another, both men have benefitted from opposing defenses focusing on Brown. It says here that both men will probably rise to the challenge, but saying it and doing it are different things.

There are several reasons for this. First, distribution of targets and catches shows that it is the top three and not top four recievers that are the focus of the Steelers offense. That means Heyward-Bey automatically gets in the game more frequently. Second, with defenses focusing on Wheaton and Byrant, Bey should have more opportunities to get open.

The Steelers signed Darrius Heyward-Bey during the 2014 off season, and projected him as a special teams player. In fact, he only had 5 targets in all of 2014. But since then he’s earned a spot in the offense, and played well while Martavis Bryant served his substance abuse suspension.

  • Heyward-Bey’s role declined with Bryant’s return, but he has seen action, as recently as the Cleveland game.

Heyward-Bey still has the breakaway speed that made him a 7th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. Early in the season his hands were solid but, while he made a spectacular 66 yard catch vs. Cleveland, he also dropped a ball that could have been a game changer.

If Heyward-Bey is to be effective, he not only needs to gain separation from receivers, but catch the ball down field. With the Denver Broncos defense free to focus on stopping Wheaton and Bryant, Heyward-Bey must make defenses pay with his hands, and use his speed to open up underneath routes for Heath Miller and Fitzgerald Toussaint.

Other Injured Steelers Not Named Ben, Brown or Williams

In addition to Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers fullback Will Johnson is listed as questionable with a hamstring.

Safeties Will Allen and Robert Golden, linebackers James Harrison, Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams, defensive end Cameron Heyward and tight end Matt Spaeth are listed as probable on the Steelers injury report, although Spaeth, Harrison and Allen are listed as not injury related.

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