It's not easy to lose the best wide receiver in the NFL and rack up 339 passing yards against the league's No. 1 defense. That's what Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger managed to do against the Denver Broncos at Mile High last Sunday.
It helps, of course, to have one of the NFL's deepest and most talented receiving corps at your disposal. With All-Pro Antonio Brown sidelined by a concussion sustained from a cheap shot by Vontaze Burfict in the Wild Card round, the other Steelers wide receivers answered the call in a Divisional round playoff game against the AFC's No. 1 seed.
Rookie Sammie Coates, who had played just nine offensive snaps entering the game, caught two passes on three targets for 61 yards. His longest catch of the day came on a short dig route, which he managed to turn into a 37-yard gain to move the chains on third-and-eight . Coates lined up in the slot right on the play, with veteran Darius Heyward-Bey flanking him to the right. At the snap, Heyward-Bey crossed in front of Coates at the line of scrimmage, creating confusion between cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib.
After making the catch, Coates showed off his speed and blew by Harris down the sideline. Heyward-Bey executed a great block on Talib down field, allowing Coates to run for an extra 15-yards.
Drafted in the third round, Coates was a big time player at Auburn. He played in the BCS National Championship game his sophomore season, and set a school record with 206 receiving yards, five catches and two touchdowns against Alabama his senior year.
Similar to Martavis Bryant, Coates has a great combination of size and speed. The 6-foot 1-inch, 212-pound rookie ran a 4.45 40-yard dash at the 2015 NFL Combine last winter. With a little more experience, Coates is in line to snatch the No. 4 position away from Heyward-Bey on the team's wide receiver depth chart in 2016.
Speaking of Heyward-Bey, the seven-year veteran was a solid No. 4 wide receiver for Pittsburgh this season. He finished the regular season with 21 receptions on 39 targets for 314 yards and two touchdowns, and caught two passes for 64-yards against the Broncos. His 58-yard catch-and-run on a third-and-five helped move the chains, and set up a 43-yard field goal by Chris Boswell, giving the Steelers a 10-6 lead with 10:24 remaining in the second quarter.
Heyward-Bey is set to become a unrestricted free agent this offseason, but look for the Steelers to bring him back on a one or two-year deal to provide depth at the wide receiver position, and as a gunner on the punt coverage team.
After assuming the No. 2 role during the 2014 season, Markus Wheaton became the third option at times during the 2015 season, with the continued emergence of Bryant. He caught five passes for 30 yards against the Broncos, helping to move the chains on a couple of key drives.
His 13-yard catch in the play above resulted in a first down at the Denver 40-yard line. Unfortunately running back Fitzgerald Toussaint would fumble just two plays later, putting an end to a potential game-clinching drive.
Wheaton is the jack-of-all-trades receiver for Pittsburgh. He finished first on the team in yards per catch (17.0), third on the team in receptions (44), third in receiving yards (749), and third in receiving touchdowns (5). All of those are career-highs for the former third-round pick out of Oregon State.
2016 will mark the final year on Wheaton's rookie contract, and it will be interesting to see if the team decides to re-sign him next offseason. Much of that could depend on Bryant's ability to stay out of trouble off the field, and the continued development of Coates.
The Steelers depth at the wide receiver position allowed the offense to function effectively against the Broncos without Brown in the lineup. That's not to say the Steelers didn't miss Brown in the game. There's simply no replacing an All-Pro talent like No. 84. But the team hasn't had depth like this at the position since the days of the "Young Money Crew," which consisted of Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace.
It will be important for the Steelers to continue to provide Roethlisberger with as many weapons as possible over the next several years, while he's still in his prime. With the combination of Brown, Bryant, Wheaton, Coates and Heyward-Bey having an average age of just 25 years, the future certainly looks bright for Pittsburgh's wide receiving corps.
Barring the departure of Heyward-Bey in free agency, we should see the same cast of characters at the position next year, as they will all be under contract through the 2016 season.