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Analyzing the ever changing Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver depth chart

What to think when a major strength becomes an apparent weakness.

NFL: New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Steelers receivers coach Richard Mann is really good at his job. This dude produces high-quality wide receivers like Apple produces stuff that we complain about but still end up purchasing anyway.

In March of 2016, the Steelers looked to have by far the NFL’s most talented group of wide receivers. Even after budding star (no pun intended) Martavis Bryant was hit with a season-long suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, many fans and writers simply shrugged their shoulders and assumed that Pittsburgh’s passing attack would still be among the most potent in the NFL.

In Weeks 1 through 5, this seemed to be the case. Antonio Brown was on his way to yet another All-Pro season, Sammie Coates was catching forty yard bombs on a weekly basis and both Darrius Heyward-Bey and Eli Rogers were establishing themselves as semi-reliable targets. Then, in Week 3, the usually sure-handed Markus Wheaton dropped three passes, including a sure touchdown in the first quarter of Pittsburgh’s eventual blowout loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Since then, Wheaton, Coates and Rogers have all dealt with various injuries. Coates, despite a marvelous 150-plus yard effort against the New York Jets in Week 5, dropped a number of easy passes. Rogers was reportedly a healthy scratch from Pittsburgh’s Week 7 loss to the Patriots for violating some vague team rule (though Mike Tomlin denied this and refused to elaborate further in his weekly press conference).

As a result, Pittsburgh’s seemingly-superior unit has been surpassed in terms of talent and production by the likes of Oakland, New Orleans, Atlanta and Washington.

With nine games left on the schedule, and Pittsburgh almost certainly needing the AFC North title to make the playoffs, the Steelers need to ensure that Ben Roethlisberger has some suitable weapons when he returns to the lineup.

For starters, Tomlin has inserted Heyward-Bey into the starting lineup opposite of Brown as Pittsburgh’s No. 2 receiver. Of course, being the “No. 2” receiver in Pittsburgh is merely a job title and by no means an indicator of your spot in the pecking order, as RB Le’Veon Bell will surely be Pittsburgh’s second-most targeted player from now until the end of the season.

During his press conference, Tomlin did not commit to Rogers’ status as the team’s de facto slot receiver. Instead, Pittsburgh’s head man said that Rogers is “up for significant consideration in terms of participating in packages offensively,” which is coachspeak for “meh, we’ll see if he plays.”

Does this mean that Wheaton will jump in as the No. 3 guy? Hardly. The fourth-year receiver (who, remember, is in a contract year) has only played in three games this season. A guy who many (myself included) predicted would be Pittsburgh’s breakout players now appears to be fifth on the depth chart.

This leaves Coates, who has proven to be most effective playing outside. For Heyward-Bey to take his spot in the starting lineup either indicates that Coates’ hand injury is lingering, or that they Steelers are seeking to implement a more veteran-oriented lineup. Fortunately, the first scenario doesn’t seem particularly viable, as Coates practiced throughout the week with no issues.

Of course, Heyward-Bey may start Sunday’s game and see the field for 10 or 15 plays. Then again, he could play 35. It’s honestly an oddly-timed move on Tomlin’s part. He definitely has something up his sleeve, though. Bet.

As it stands, Pittsburgh’s receiving hierarchy is a bit of a mess, but one which is finally getting healthy. Maybe, just maybe, fans will get a glimpse of that early season receiver depth chart, and not the one prior to the bye week.