A young Randy Moss. That's who I thought I was watching as Martavis Bryant beat Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Leon Hall for a 94-yard touchdown in Week 14 of the 2014 season. Three weeks earlier, in Week 10, I was at MetLife Stadium when Bryant got behind the New York Jets secondary and hauled in an 80-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger.
Those are just two of the nine touchdowns caught by Bryant during his rookie campaign with the Pittsburgh Steelers. One could make an argument the 6-4, 211-pound speedster was the steal of the 2014 NFL Draft. Selected by the Steelers in the fourth round, Bryant finished his rookie season with 31 receptions for 610 yards and nine touchdowns.
He was a touchdown machine in 2014. Finding the end zone on over 30 percent of his catches. But Bryant only appeared in 11 games his rookie season, seeing his first action on Monday Night Football against the Houston Texans in Week 7. In 13 games in 2015, Bryant caught fewer touchdowns (7), but amassed far more receptions (64), and yards (948).
Despite Bryant's recent suspension for violation of the league's substance abuse policy, his improved play on the field has to be encouraging for General Manager Kevin Colbert, and Head Coach Mike Tomlin and his offensive staff. Tomlin, Roethlisberger, and Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley made a concerted effort to get the young wideout more involved in the passing game this season. He was targeted 113 times in 2015, after seeing just 57 targets in 2014, and his reception total more than doubled. His yardage total rose by nearly a third.
He was heavily involved in the 23-16 Divisional round playoff loss to the Denver Broncos last Sunday. No. 1 wide receiver Antonio Brown missed the game with a concussion, and it was up to the No. 2 guy to step up in his absence.
Boy did Bryant deliver.
In a game that went to the wire, the Steelers needed every bit of Bryant's 194 all-purpose yards to hang with the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The second-year pro finished the afternoon with nine catches for 154 yards on 15 targets, and carried the ball twice for 40 yards. All 40 of those rushing yards came on a reverse late in the first quarter during the team's lone touchdown drive.
There aren't many people like Martavis Bryant in the world. Even among freakish athletes, his rare combination of size, speed, and explosiveness stand out. He looked like Jamaican olympic sprinter Usain Bolt on the 40-yard end around that eventually led to a one-yard touchdown plunge by third-string running back Fitzgerald Toussaint.
The play was a perfect call against Denver's eight-man box. Anticipating a run to the strong side of the formation, the Broncos brought strong safety TJ Ward, an excellent run stopper, up near the line of scrimmage. With the defenders cheating in that direction, the Steelers were able to counter Denver's aggressiveness with misdirection.
Initially, it looks like linebacker Shane Ray has a chance to make the tackle in the backfield, but tight end Heath Miller chips him just enough to allow Bryant to get around the left edge. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and left guard Ramon Foster did a nice job of sealing their men on the play to allow Bryant to get in space. If it weren't for the hustle by Broncos defensive tackle Malik Jackson, who showed freakish athleticism of his own chasing the wide receiver down from behind, the run would have gone for a touchdown.
Bryant was able to get in space once again with 11:48 remaining in the third quarter. On second and ten, the Steelers offense came out in a four wide receiver empty set. At the snap, the Broncos dropped into zone coverage, and second-year cornerback Bradley Roby got caught looking in the backfield. Roethlisberger pointed to receivers on the right side of the field, moving Roby with his eyes, before finding Bryant wide open to his left. When Roby got back into a position to make the tackle, Bryant buckled the corner's knees with a devastating cut to the inside before using his incredible straight-line speed to separate from defenders down the field.
The 52-yard gain helped set up a 28-yard field goal by Chris Boswell, extending the Steelers lead to 13-9 with 9:34 left in the third quarter.
Bryant also showed the ability to make tough, contested catches in his third career playoff game. In the above play, he uses his upper body strength to fight through press coverage from Roby, then flashes his ability to high-point the ball, making an acrobatic catch for an 18-yard gain before getting cleaned out by the safety.
The play epitomizes the toughness Roethlisberger was looking for out of Bryant when he called the youngster out in the media heading into the Wild Card game with Cincinnati. Big Ben challenged Bryant to play with more toughness in the playoffs, and he did just that, racking up 21 receptions for 183 yards and a touchdown to go along with 84 rushing yards in two postseason games.
With a little seasoning, Bryant has shown tremendous improvement throughout his first two NFL seasons. After being suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season for a repeat violation of the league's substance abuse policy, the 24-year-old appears to have gotten his act together. That's good news for the Steelers, who will need Bryant to continue his upward trend next year to make another Super Bowl run.
Bryant was considered a developmental project coming out of Clemson two years ago. A member of a draft class that featured the likes of Sammy Watkins, Kelvin Benjamin, Mike Evans and Odell Beckham Jr., he's emerged as one of the most dangerous young receivers in the game.
The sky is the limit for Bryant, who showed he's got what it takes to step up and be the No. 1 option. If he can avoid further off-the-field issues, he should continue to be an integral part of the one of NFL's best offensive units for years to come.