Not long after free agency began last March, it was apparent the Steelers would be facing turnover at the wide receiver position. With Emmanuel Sanders leaving for Denver and Jerricho Cotchery getting starter's money from Carolina, the Steelers' reality was they would be having to replace two of their top three wide receivers from 2013.
During free agency, the Steelers added Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey, and then they spent a fourth-round pick in the draft on Martavis Bryant from Clemson. Those three newcomers would join first-year pro Justin Brown and 2013's No. 3 pick Markus Wheaton on a unit headed by two-time Pro Bowl selection Antonio Brown.
Through seven games of this regular season, the Steelers for now are finished re-making their unit of wide receivers, but that doesn't mean everything is settled. For all intents and purposes, Antonio Brown and Wheaton are the starters, even though there has been one game when a specific package the Steelers used to begin one game didn't include Wheaton.
The No. 3 receiver at the start of the season was Justin Brown, but it's been Moore the past couple of weeks. Heyward-Bey has seen more playing time recently, and Bryant was active for his first NFL game on Monday night against the Texans.
Coach Mike Tomlin said he likes the way the different members of the unit have been finding ways to contribute, but he isn't necessarily interested in putting labels on each player's role.
"I like what transpired in the stadium," said Tomlin. "Basically when called upon, a lot of different guys delivered. Maybe there's not a second, third, or fourth (wide receiver) per se, but situationally, or by package, or by concept, we'll just continue to work that division of labor and continue to put those guys in a position to do what they do best, geared toward having balance within the group. And (we'll be) leaning on the physical strengths of all the men."
Antonio Brown currently leads all NFL wide receivers with 50 catches (running back Matt Forte has 52), and Wheaton is second among wide receivers on the team with 24. Justin Brown has 12 catches, Heyward-Bey and Bryant have two apiece.
Bryant's two catches both came against the Texans, the first of which was a 35-yard touchdown that cut Houston's lead to 13-10 late in the second quarter. Fans have been itching to see Bryant on the field because he's 6-foot-4 and the tallest receiver on the team, but Tomlin was matter-of-fact about what the rookie contributed in his first outing.
"I am not going to try to make more out of it than what it is," said Tomlin about Bryant after the game. "He made a great play, a necessary play. It is a play that he is capable of making. It's a play that we watch him consistently make on the practice field. He is still working to round out his game like a lot of young guys are, but that was a significant contribution to our efforts."
The expectation all along has been that Bryant is capable of making contributions to the Steelers' efforts in the red zone, an area where the team's offense ranked 31st in the NFL heading into Monday night's game. Against the Texans, the Steelers converted 2-of-3, but Bryant wasn't involved in either of those.
Antonio Brown was involved, but as a passer instead of a receiver, when he fired the ball to Moore in the end zone off a reverse.
"The idea (there) was to score," said Tomlin about the play selection. "Antonio has proven to be a guy who's capable of delivering plays for us, whether it's running the ball or throwing the ball. That's definitely not the first ball he's thrown since he's been here. You just want to put the ball in playmakers' hands, and he is that."
On another matter, Tomlin addressed his view of the 30-yard catch by Antonio Brown in the fourth quarter that first was ruled a touchdown and then overturned on replay:
"I thought it was an extremely close play, and usually when the play is that close they stay with the call on the field. It's tough to argue with the call on the field, regardless of what it is. They ruled it a touchdown on the field, so I was of the impression that it was going to remain that. It didn't. Thankfully we were able to move forward and secure victory."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"As we talked about last night (after the game), Marcus Gilbert sustained a concussion. He'll go through the normal protocol, and we'll see where that takes us over the course of the week. A lot of bumps and bruises in the game, but guys were able to return and so forth. Maybe those guys will be limited at the early portions of the week, but I don't anticipate anybody missing time because of what happened in the stadium last night, except of course Marcus Gilbert. We have several guys working their way back and they worked in some capacity last week. I would imagine they have a pretty good chance of playing this week – talking about Shamarko Thomas and Ryan Shazier. Both worked in a limited capacity last week, and at the 11th hour we decided to use some other people. We'll give those guys a chance and see where they are this week, but we expect both guys to be extremely close and potentially be available to us."