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The Mystery Of Steelers WR Martavis Bryant

Martavis Bryant is a young and exciting athlete, but Bryant's inconsistencies leave him in a shroud of mystery leaving fans scratching their heads at times.

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The moment that A.J. Tarpley snatched a football out of the Orchard Park air on Sunday in Buffalo with eleven seconds remaining, "Fitz-Magic" and the 2015 season of the New York Jets subsequently halted. This moment thrilled Steeler Nation and set up a date for their black and gold heroes in a Wild Card game with their bitter rival, Bengals, in Cincinnati on Saturday. Because of A.J.,the Steelers get a rubber match with, ironically, A.J. (McCarron) and A.J. (Green).

From coast to coast, and especially in the Steel and Queen cities, everybody with an opinion is discussing the keys to the game's outcome. With more sub-plots than Pulp Fiction, this game offers it all. We've got the injury exclusions of DeAngelo and Dalton, Marcus Gilbert's Christmas wish, the Burfict Effect, Big Ben's sudden, erratic gunslinger impression and the possibility of Pac Man Fever driving everybody crazy, to name a few.

But possibly the biggest question going into this elimination contest is...What's going on with Martavis Bryant?

For me, the second-year receiver is a definite X-factor in this contest and must be on-point and have hands of honey for the Steelers to advance to a second round dance off in Denver. But more important for the 6-foot 5-inch gazelle from Clemson, this game quite possibly could dictate the direction that his career path takes in Pittsburgh.

There have always been curiosities surrounding Bryant, especially the question of why he wasn't selected until the fourth round in 2014 despite his aforementioned height and his impressive 4.42 time in the 40-yard dash. Was he the 19th receiver chosen because he was overshadowed in college by first-round picks and teammates DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins, was it just too a deep draft for WRs or was it something else?

The magic ball points to something else.

The plain and simple truth is that Martavis had some maturity issues in college. The 2013 Honorable Mention All-ACC selection started 11 of 13 games that year and caught 42 balls for 842 yards his junior season, but lost playing time for making a throat-slashing gesture in a game. He led the NCAA with 30.5 yards-per-reception his sophomore year, but was suspended for Clemson's bowl game due to academic issues.

Projected as a possible third-rounder, Martavis was lauded by scouts as having very good straight-line separation speed, being shifty after the catch and as a red-zone threat with ability to make back-shoulder catches. His main weaknesses were having inconsistent hands and making too many easy drops, not being a polished route runner and lacking toughness desired to work the middle of the field. That scouting report and the threat of not being of sound character forced him to wait until the 118th pick before the Steelers chose him.

In Pittsburgh, there was much rejoicing coupled with cautious optimism surrounding the Bryant selection because Ben Roethlisberger would have a big target to throw to. Because of evidence that his penchant for dropping more balls than a lottery official, Mike Tomlin chose to relegate Bryant to scout team duty for six games until his much-ballyhooed debut against the Houston Texans in Week Seven.

When he finally got to play, he was simply electrifying. His very first reception was a 35-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger that helped the Steelers come from behind in that game. Bryant ended the season with eight touchdown receptions in 10 games and added another one in the Wild Card loss to the Ravens. In his rookie season, he amassed  a total of 26 catches and 549 receiving yards.

Being paired with the All-World Antonio Brown and getting complemented with comparisons to Randy Moss, the sky was the limit and excitement was at a fever pitch to see what No. 10 could do in 2015. But that cooled off when questions regarding his maturity began to resurface after he was hit with a four-game suspension in the preseason due to multiple failed drug tests.

The comparisons to Moss continued, but not the favorable kind ( if you smell what's been smoking). After serving the suspension and vowing to stay on the straight and narrow, Martavis sat out another week due to injury. Upon his return in Week 6, Bryant picked up where he left off with a six catch, 133-yard and two touchdown effort in a victory over Arizona. He then tallied four more trips to the end zone in the next six games. He closed the season with a total of 50 catches for 765 yards in 11 games, but had a mere two catches in his final two games and zero scores in his final four. Concern slowly and surely starting to creep in when he disappeared and failed to get open down the stretch, but mostly when the drops became more and more prevalent. According to, Bryant suffered eight dropped passes in 2015. That was one more than Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Le'Veon Bell, Deangelo Williams, Heath Miller and Darius Heyward-Bey combined.

Steeler Nation and the national media has noticed. In some cases both as former Steeler and respected ESPN commentator, Merrill Hoge, told WDVE that Bryant was "sloppy" and "lazy"on Wednesday.

The concern most definitely was noticed and extends to members of the team, especially team leaders Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. By calling out Bryant on his 93.7 The Fan radio segment on Tuesday, Big Ben made an intelligent and strategical move in calling out his young receiver. By saying that Martavis "needs to get tough, you've got to make the tough plays and you've got to make the tough catches", Ben let it be known to everyone, Martavis included, how much he is needed and crucial to the team's success. AB took Bryant aside after practice and spent time with his fellow receiver with extra reps with the JUGS machine. Tomlin cited Martavis' missed practices due to illness and a neck ailment, combined with being a young player as a factor in his benching in Cleveland.

It is great to see the leadership of the veterans in guiding the younger guys and the pure desire that they have to reach the holy grail that is Super Bowl 50 (the younger guys need to have that hunger and urgency as well). But the most important thing is just how well Bryant responds. So far it has been viewed as positive when MB responded by accepting his quarterback's challenge. He responded by acknowledging that Roethlisberger "wants me to be great", that "it woke me up" and pledged to "regenerate" and be "ready to work".

While Martavis' responses are encouraging, it is how he definitively performs on the field that matters the most. With DeAngelo Williams out and Fitzgerald Toussaint replacing him, the defense of Cincinnati may not feel as inclined to focus on the running game in the manner in which they would have if Williams had not gotten injured. Major focus will be on Antonio Brown and Bryant stepping up is needed now more than ever.  This week Martavis tweeted on his feed, @ThaBestUno, pics of himself and teammates wearing a t-shirt that reads, "Make it happen or watch it happen". The time for spectating is over and Bryant needs to show extreme urgency and soak in the words displayed prominently on his cotton-blend clad chest and do the former, not the latter.

Towards the beginning of this commentary, I expressed that this game may define the direction of his career in Pittsburgh. With Markus Wheaton, who will be entering the last year of his rookie contract in 2016, suddenly rejuvenated and playing at a higher quality level the past six games, Bryant does not want to continue to pale in comparison to him. If Bryant fails to answer his critics and does not prove that he does not possess the game-breaking skills that he once exhibited, the Steelers may make Wheaton a higher priority. That would possibly make some believe Bryant to be expendable once his rookie deal runs out.

Should Bryant rise up and help lead his team past Cincy on Saturday, all will be forgotten. It will just be another chapter in a crazy season of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

And if Bryant leads the Steelers to glory in Santa Clara in February. Both Ben and Bryant will be legends for "the challenge". Ben for issuing it and Martavis for accepting it.