The Pittsburgh Steelers and their fans have long awaited the return of their second year wide receiver, Martavis Bryant. His four week suspension had taken away a player which changed the look of Pittsburgh's offense once he arrived in 2014. Scoring eight touchdowns in ten games while becoming a respectable deep threat which secondaries had to compensate for made him a big part of why so many were excited about the Steelers' offense coming into 2015.
Unfortunately his new injury will continue to delay his return to the lineup, and the Steelers will have to rely on their depth at wide receiver to hold out for just a little longer. This especially hurts with the offense missing Ben Roethlisberger for another week and operating with thes strong-armed backup of Michael Vick. Vick was brought in for Pittsburgh after Bruce Gradkowski was injured in a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers and the team realized it could not rely on Landry Jones to try to lead the team in Ben's absence.
Vick's first play in the preseason as a Steeler was a bomb to Martavis Bryant that showed one young receiver's explosiveness and a wily veteran quarterback who still had some gas in the tank. Not having Bryant takes away a major option to spread the field for the Steelers and a player with which Vick can take more deep shots against the defense.
But Pittsburgh has been dealing with Bryant's absence throughout their first four games of 2015, and in a way this is not all that bad. Vick was concerned about Bryant's availability earlier this week, which means he has been preparing all this time to play without him.
Instead the Steelers will most likely rely on another more seasoned veteran to be the speedy deep threat for Vick to try and victimize the San Diego Chargers with, and that's Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Heyward-Bey was more of a special teams player last season for the Steelers and did not solidify his place as a playmaker wide receiver on the team's roster, but rather as a player that can be called upon and know his role in various situations. That has changed this season as the team has relied on Heyward-Bey in the opening weeks of 2015 without Martavis Bryant.
Heyward-Bey already has 15 catches on 20 targets for 185 yards and two touchdowns on the season. Numbers which have him on a much better pace than he has had with either the Indianapolis Colts or the Steelers since he parted ways with his original team, the Oakland Raiders.
His two touchdowns this season have both come on significant red-zone plays, one where Ben Roethlisberger found him in the middle of the field against the San Francisco 49ers, and another where Michael Vick hit him in the corner of the end-zone last week against the Baltimore Ravens. Heyward-Bey is still plenty fast, and his experience, combined with the teachings of Richard Mann and working alongside the NFL's best receiver in Antonio Brown, seem to have made him a better option for the Steelers than many would have given him credit for not too long ago.
Now that Michael Vick has had more than a practice and a walk through with the Steeelers' first team offense, expect Todd Haley to allow Vick to open it up more with Pittsburgh's weapons. While Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell are two of the best players in the league, they will also garner much attention from San Diego's defense. This should hopefully give more opportunities to get in open space for Markus Wheaton, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Heath Miller and DeAngelo Williams. All of which are more than capable targets for Vick.
Heyward-Bey has been the surprise though on a team that expected more of his numbers to have been hauled in by the young Markus Wheaton rather than the journeyman wide receiver who only caught three passes for 33 yards last year.
Heyward-Bey won't post Antonio Brown numbers tonight, but he may become a favorite target for Vick should Bryant's absence linger. Calling for him to catch a touchdown and 80+ yards would not be so unreasonable for fans to expect should the Chargers prioritize their defense in stopping the Steelers other high priority players.
So far, he's been a solid representation of Mike Tomlin's "next man up" call for depth. Look for that to continue against San Diego.