Steelers' young receivers need plenty of time on the field in regular season finale
The Pittsburgh Steelers will host the Cleveland Browns in their final regular season game of 2016. With the 3rd seed firmly in their grasp, the Steelers have the opportunity to rest their starters in preparation for the upcoming wildcard game.
Mike Tomlin wants to “preserve and protect” his offensive playmakers this coming Sunday. This is no surprise with the Raiders and Titans both losing their starting quarterbacks to injury last weekend. Sitting Antonio Brown not only benefits the success of the offense in the future, but give his supporting cast of receivers some much-needed time snaps.
Brown, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Sammie Coates are the only playoff experienced receivers currently on the Steelers’ roster. Brown has appeared in six post seasons games, DHB in four, and Coates in one. Giving the remainder of the depth chart any kind of extended time on the field will go a long way in preparing them for the crucial games to come.
Coates’ status for Sunday’s game is currently unknown. The wide receiver missed the Steelers’ Christmas night game against the Ravens due to a hamstring injury. After being ailed by broken fingers for many weeks, the untimely hamstring injury cost him precious time on the field, but opened the door for Demarcus Ayers.
Ayers was targeted twice in last Sunday’s win over the Ravens. His first generated a defensive pass interference call on Tavon Young. His second was a nine yard catch that wasn’t flashy, but displayed his football intelligence to get out-of-bounds to stop the clock and save valuable seconds. The rookie receiver beat his man in press coverage on multiple occasions, and getting back on the field will only aid his future production.
Although he is no Martavis Bryant, Cobi Hamilton has served as productive receiver on the outside for Ben Roethlisberger this year. He has only caught fourteen passes this year, but ten of them have converted for first downs. He is a reliable target on third down, obviously making him a favorite target for Big Ben. He caught one pass for six yards against Baltimore, but should make his presence felt in the post season.
The most productive receiver next to Brown on the Steelers’ has been Eli Rogers. His 42 receptions for 533 yards and three touchdowns may not seem overly impressive, but he has bounced back from the broken foot that ruined his rookie season in 2015. Working out of the slot, Rogers made an impressive 39 yard catch and run in the third quarter last weekend. He also made this impressive catch to put the Steelers in the red zone in the fourth quarter.
This year Ayers, Coates, Hamilton, and Rogers have produced 78 receptions for 1,157 yards, and six touchdowns. For a group of young receivers that had little to no experience with their quarterback, they are beginning to develop into reliable targets for Roethlisberger.
Even though the Browns only have one win this year, their secondary is a capable group of defenders. Joe Haden has been constantly nagged by injuries this year, but is a top-tier cornerback. He exited Cleveland’s win over the San Diego Charger early with a neck injury, and his status for Sunday is uncertain. Haden did not practice on Tuesday, according to the Browns’ injury report.
If Haden does not suit up, Jamar Taylor and Briean Boddy-Calhoun will be the top two cornerbacks on Cleveland’s depth chart. Since being traded by the Dolphins to the Browns, Taylor has recorded a respectable season. The veteran defensive back has amassed three interceptions and twelve passes defended this year, eclipsing any kind of statistics he posted in Miami.
Boddy-Calhoun, the rookie who was thrust into a starting role due to Haden’s injuries, has recorded two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, and nine defended passes. It seems that trading Justin Gilbert to the Steelers has not hurt their depth at cornerback in any way.
The Steelers final regular season game of the season will be a perfect opportunity for their depth at wide receiver to prepare themselves for wildcard weekend. While he is not inexperienced, this will be the perfect game for Heyward-Bey to shake the rust off after being limited by an ankle injury since week nine.
Although they are young, the Steelers’ receiver corps has immense talent. Getting them as much time on the field as possible before the Wildcard game further expands their experience in the offense. The Steelers final game of the year gives them the perfect opportunity to do so, and it will serve them well as they make their playoff push towards Houston.
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