The curious case of Markus Wheaton's declining role in Steelers offense

PITTSBURGH -- An emerging slot receiver in a quick passing game with a top-shelf quarterback should make a killing in the Pittsburgh Steelers offense.

Yet here is Markus Wheaton, the most curious case in the Steelers’ locker room, trying to explain his declining production.

Wheaton seemed a robust fantasy option coming off a 53-catch, 644-yard campaign in 2014. Teammates raved about his offseason, even more so than beastly outside receiver Martavis Bryant.

Wheaton was eager to validate those thoughts. Nine games and three starting quarterbacks later, Wheaton has 14 catches for 255 yards and one touchdown.

He can explain why the numbers aren’t there.

“The middle of the field is a chemistry thing,” Wheaton said. “When Ben came back, he and Heath [Miller] had been doing it for years so their chemistry hadn’t gone anywhere. It’s just about building it back … I was getting three, four, five catches a game [last year] and the chemistry was there. It’s easier when Ben's there all 16 games and I’m there all 16 games.

“Going back and forth, switching every few games, has been tough.”

Wheaton is right about Miller, who recorded 10 catches for 105 yards in Ben Roethlisberger's first game back from the knee injury. In the last two games with Roethlisberger, Wheaton got six targets compared to 34 for Antonio Brown, 19 for Miller and 16 for Bryant. He's been most affected by the quarterback changes.

On a third down Sunday against Oakland, Wheaton cut inside when Roethlisberger threw him to the sideline. It was a clear miscommunication.

Wheaton admits he can do “a lot better” overall. He had a downfield play he said he didn’t make. But he’s not going to lie -- not getting more involved is frustrating.

Wheaton's 72-yard touchdown from Michael Vick helped the Steelers beat San Diego, but otherwise Wheaton has been quiet.

“For me, it’s just about finding a way to impact the game when I’m not getting the ball and staying upbeat,” Wheaton said. [Targets are] really something I can’t worry about, even if it doesn’t come, just try to be an impact, try to help out the team whatever way I can. Even if it doesn’t come, obviously I would hope it would, but if it doesn’t, it’s out of my control.”

Perhaps there’s hope for the Wheaton-Landry Jones connection this week. Before doing this interview, Jones spent a while talking with Jones by his locker. The more football they talk, the better the chances for organic connections on the field.

"When I get one down the field, that’s an opportunity I have to take advantage of," Wheaton said.