Following the Steelers tough 23-16 loss to the Broncos at Sports Authority Field Sunday evening in an AFC Divisional round match-up, there were many great moments captured of young wide-out Martavis Bryant, who appeared to look inconsolable.
One was found on the front page of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review on Monday, where Bryant appears to be in tears as he's hugged by fellow receiver, veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey as the two get ready to exit the field. And in this link to a Rob Rossi post-game article which talks about how potentially close these young Steelers are to Super Bowl success in the next year or so, you can find an image of Bryant being consoled by a member of the team's staff.
As the players, coaches and fans put Sunday's devastating loss behind them and begin to look to the future, there is no doubt spirits will quickly be buoyed by the thoughts that this Steelers team really does have the pieces in place to be 'Super,' perhaps as early as next year, especially when you take into account the fact that a few of those pieces were inactive on Sunday due to unfortunate injuries, and that other players who were entrusted with picking up the slack came through in a fairly big way.
Bryant was certainly one of those players. If you looked at his stat-line from Sunday's game without knowing the name that those numbers belonged to (nine receptions on 15 targets for 154 yards, along with another 40 yards rushing on two carries), you may have thought to yourself, "I thought Antonio Brown was inactive for the Denver game due to a concussion." Of course, Brown didn't play in Sunday's game, thanks to a head shot he received via Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict in the waning seconds of Pittsburgh's wild card victory on January 9.
The rest of the Steelers wide-receiver corps--a unit that was regarded by many as the greatest and deepest in the NFL--was going to have to step up and replace the best there is in the game today.
Not only did Bryant step-up, he looked pretty dominant. Sure, it wasn't a perfect game for the youngster, but, all things considered, you couldn't have asked for much more--other than maybe a pass-interference penalty on Broncos defensive back Aqib Talib, who appeared to mug Bryant on a pass into the end zone early in the third quarter. Perhaps it's fitting that the picture linked above shows Talib with a whole bunch of Bryant, because, if there's one thing that the second-year receiver has shown in his short NFL career, that has consisted of just 21 games due to inexperience and a suspension, it's that's he's a handful for any defensive back who tries to cover him one-one-one.
There's no question Bryant, Pittsburgh's fourth round pick out of Clemson in the 2014 NFL Draft, possesses every physical attribute you could ever want in a wide-receiver. But there's also no question the 24 year old has had some problems maturing and growing into a professional football player. Here's a quote from draft expert Mike Mayock, which can be found on Bryant's pre-draft profile page: "Bryant has a crazy wide receiver skill set, but he's a one-year wonder. The guy has some scary talent, but also some maturity issues."
As for Mayock's one-hit wonder comment, that had to do with Bryant only starting one year at Clemson--his Junior and final year--where he caught 42 passes for 828 yards and seven touchdowns before deciding to turn pro. However, coaches and scouts don't necessarily shy away from a receiver with Bryant's physical attributes that include a 6'4", 210 pound frame and 4.4 speed just because he only started one year in college--even if his route running is sketchy and his hands are a bit suspect. However, people do tend to steer clear of players with maturity issues. If those maturity issues include problems with drugs, you're a sure bet to get drafted a few rounds lower than perhaps your talent dictates--if you're even drafted at all.
After catching 26 passes for 549 yards and eight touchdowns in just 10 games of his rookie season in 2014, the excitement for Bryant couldn't have been higher as he prepared for the 2015 campaign. Unfortunately, late last August, word came down that Bryant would be suspended for the first four games of the regular season, due to violating the league's substance abuse policy. Around this time is when his quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, said that the young wide-out had no idea just how good he could be.
As Bryant served out his suspension, he sought treatment from a drug counselor in Texas.
After making his 2015 debut in Week 6, Bryant began putting up the type of numbers one might expect from such a young talent--including six receptions for 137 yards and two touchdowns in a win against the Cardinals (totals that single-handily put backup quarterback Landry Jones on the map). All-in-all, Bryant caught 50 passes for 765 yards and six touchdowns in 11 games (averaged out over a full year, those numbers would be 72, 1112 and eight). However, over his final two games, Bryant basically disappeared, as Pittsburgh struggled to put up points and just made the playoffs. On his weekly radio show days before the wild card game in Cincinnati, Roethlisberger challenged Bryant to 'toughen up,' because the team was going to need him to produce in the postseason:
"He was sick last week and that got him behind a little bit. But I love to challenge him. We all do. The sky is the limit for him. I want to challenge him to be the best in the world, and it's really up to him with what he wants to do with that challenge."
Bryant began to answer that challenge at Paul Brown Stadium when, in addition to a 44 yard run on an end-around, he caught five passes for 29 yards. Included in those five receptions was Pittsburgh's only touchdown of the night, when Bryant made an acrobatic, 10-yard catch in the back corner of the end zone that words can't accurately describe. If Bryant's concentration during the play didn't tell you he accepted his franchise quarterback's challenge; the emphatic spike afterwards surely did.
And that's the reason I began this piece by calling Bryant's post-loss sad moments "great."
It's great that he appears to care so much.
Much like the team he plays for, Martavis Bryant might be oh so close to becoming the best in the world. A motivated and maturing Bryant is something that his teammates, his coaches and the fans may soon benefit from in extraordinary ways.