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Steelers wide receiver depth to be tested in Martavis Bryant's absence

The Pittsburgh Steelers were dealt a difficult hand when news of Martavis Bryant's 4-game suspension was made public Thursday. All is not lost for the Steelers' offense, but it won't be easy.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

As Todd Haley and the Pittsburgh Steelers prepared for the regular season without Le'Veon Bell for two games, and Maurkice Pouncey for half of the season, they surely didn't think they would be dealt another loss barring an injury in the final two weeks of the preseason. That all changed Thursday when it was made public the team's budding superstar WR Martavis Bryant was dealt a 4-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.

Bryant is appealing the suspension, but losing Bryant for any amount of time will certainly test the Steelers offense, but mainly their wide receiver corps. In Bryant's absence, Darrius Heyward-Bey is expected to play out wide with Antonio Brown in three wide receiver sets, with Markus Wheaton resuming his role as slot receiver which he has been preparing for all preseason.

The loss of Bryant will certainly send shock waves throughout the depth chart other than Heyward-Bey. Suddenly third round pick Sammie Coates, C.J. Goodwin and Tyler Murphy become viable options not just to make the team's 53-man roster, but to see playing time. The team could also turn to Dri Archer as more of a wide receiver than running back, but either way you look at it, Bryant's absence leaves a gaping hole in the roster. Not just as a big play threat, but also from a production standpoint.

Some might point to Bryant's 8 touchdowns in 2014 as what will truly be missing from the lineup, but his 21.1 yards per catch is what will truly be missing. Go back to 2013, before Bryant was drafted by the Steelers in 2014, and the Steelers lacked a true vertical deep threat which opened up the offense for players like Markus Wheaton and Antonio Brown. In fact, in that season, Brown and Jerricho Cotchery both lead the team in average yards per reception with 13.

Bryant's skill set is unique as his size and speed are extremely uncommon at the wide receiver position, but if Heyward-Bey has one of those two skill sets, it is his speed. Heyward-Bey can still run, but the question remains can his hands improve enough to force defenses to not roll all of their coverage to stop Antonio Brown. In 2014, Heyward-Bey had 3 receptions for 33 yards on just 5 targets. Not a glowing endorsement for a replacement for a player of Bryant's caliber.

Wheaton will certainly feel more pressure than anyone else throughout this suspension. No longer will he simply be the side kick, but will have to be a primary target for Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger trusts Wheaton, and in the team's last preseason game it was Wheaton who was Roethlisberger's primary target as he hauled in 3 catches for 42 yards and a touchdown, in just three series of work. Wheaton's 2014 season was a drastic improvement from his rookie season of 2013, with 644 yards receiving and a 12.2 average, Wheaton will have a chance to take the next step in his progression, further validating his No. 2 WR status on the team's depth chart.

Without Bell, Bryant and Pouncey for at least the first two weeks, the Steelers strength on offense certainly has taken some blows, but although the depth at WR will be tested, there is nothing to suggest an offense lead by Roethlisberger and play makers like Heath Miller, Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams aren't able to keep the ship afloat in the short-term. In fact, most who follow the team would suggest the complete opposite.