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Steelers believe Wheaton ready to step in as No. 2 receiver

| Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Steelers receiver Markus Wheaton catches a touchdown pass in front of the Bills' Stephon Gilmore during the first quarter Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014, at Heinz Field.

Ben Roethlisberger is excelling in the no-huddle. The offensive line is keeping him grass stain-free. Antonio Brown is turning short catches into long gains, and September isn't even here yet.

For all that's going well with the Steelers' offense — and how many times has that been written in August during recent seasons — its regular-season success or failure might hinge on a player with one career start.

The starting wide receiver job opposite Brown is Markus Wheaton's to lose — and, so far, the third-round draft pick from last season is winning it. He turned an inside-out move and solo coverage into a 16-yard touchdown catch against Buffalo, and Brown was as happy afterward as he was.

“I think it's definitely a key — a key — for him to make those plays when he gets one-on-one matchups,” Brown said Monday.

For Brown to again put up team-record stats, for the no-huddle to operate efficiently, for Roethlisberger to have multiple options downfield in an increasingly wide-open offense, the Steelers badly need Wheaton to be productive and reliable.

Failure simply isn't an option.

“It's absolutely important (for him to succeed) or teams are going to come to the stadium and put two or three guys on me,” Brown said. “We're going to need other guys (contributing) to win.”

It's not that the Steelers don't have other options, but Wheaton clearly is the best. They'd prefer to keep Lance Moore in the slot rather than move him outside and, while fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant and 2013 pick Justin Brown are having impressive days in camp, both need more polishing.

“I would say it's my job to lose, but we have a lot of good receivers that are shooting for that spot,” Wheaton said. “I would still say it's still up in the air, but I would definitely say it's my spot to lose.”

Wheaton, a third-round pick in 2013, was just beginning to take on a bigger role in the offense last season when he broke his left pinky finger in three places during the Vikings game in London. He had three catches in that game, but made only three more during what became a lost rookie season.

“It was the first time I'd gotten hurt,” said Wheaton who needed two operations to repair a finger that remains badly bent. “It was very frustrating.”

Spending a year in the NFL, even as disappointing as it was — and with Roethlisberger residing in the locker next to his — appears to be greatly benefiting the 5-foot-11 Wheaton. He was very productive at Oregon State, making 227 catches, including 91 for 1,244 yards and 11 TDs in 2012.

“I'm a lot more confident. It's easier (in his second season) to get out there and play and retain everything,” Wheaton said. “I'm not being force fed as much, knowing a lot of stuff we already learned coming in (to camp). It's made it a lot easier.”

Wheaton is a strong route runner who plays much faster than his NFL Combine 40 time of 4.45 suggests. He's also one of those never-takes-a-day-off-from-practice players who earns the respect of those on the other side of the ball.

“He didn't look like a rookie even when he was a rookie,” cornerback Ike Taylor said.

According to Roethlisberger, Wheaton is “learning and growing fast — and we need him to.”

“He doesn't make the same mistake twice,” Roethlisberger said. “He's going to be a key because if we don't have another receiver, then people can just watch A.B. We all see what A.B. can do in a game. So we need Markus to step up. … We can't afford for teams to put three guys on A.B.

“I hope Wheaton is that guy because he is a young guy that people don't quite know about yet. He hasn't earned the respect, and that's probably rightfully so because he hasn't done much. But I'm excited for him because I think he is going to surprise a lot of people.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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