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Healthy at last, Wheaton shines for Steelers

PITTSBURGH — Markus Wheaton took his spot at the line of scrimmage, looked over at Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and ordered his brain to hit delete.

The original play call? Gone. The clock ticking down and overtime looming, Roethlisberger audibled looking for a better matchup. The one he chose put Pittsburgh’s fate in the capable, yet inexperienced hands of the second-year wide receiver with the wavy dreadlocks and the quick feet from Oregon State.

Wheaton took off at the snap, raced 20 yards then turned around to see the ball coming his way. He cradled it into his No. 11 jersey for his sixth of catch of the day before going down at the Cleveland 24. A minute later, the Steelers escaped with a 30-27 victory and Wheaton’s injury ravaged rookie season was officially a thing of the past.

“That meant a lot for Ben to come to me that late in the game,” Wheaton said. “It showed that he at least has some level of trust in me.”

Trust that was hard earned after a nightmarish 2013 in which the third-round draft pick couldn’t stay out of the trainer’s room. He needed two surgeries to repair a broken pinky finger on his right hand and finished with just six receptions in a diminished role.

“It was tough,” Wheaton said. “I ended up missing so much last year. Coming back I wasn’t really in the groove. I wasn’t in the mix with everybody else.”

Keeping Wheaton in the right mindset took some doing. Roethlisberger, offensive coordinator Todd Haley and head coach Mike Tomlin did what they could to keep Wheaton’s spirits up, but the busted finger and the lengthy rehab process took its toll.

“Here’s a guy who came in with a great deal of confidence and when he did get injured, never been hurt before, that’s hard to manage,” Haley said. “You start to kind of feel like an outsider.”

The long road back truly began during a series of offseason workouts with Roethlisberger. They spent hours refining pass routes and working on the timing throws that are crucial in Haley’s dynamic offense. The momentum carried over to training camp, where Wheaton had little trouble earning the starting spot alongside Pro Bowler Antonio Brown.

Still, for all his preparation, Wheaton understood he needed to do it when it counted. Any concerns about Roethlisberger’s confidence in him vanished in the first quarter on Sunday. Facing third-and-6 at the Pittsburgh 44, Roethlisberger found a streaking Wheaton down the sideline for a 40-yard gain. Wheaton reached out to grab the perfectly thrown pass while expertly making sure he got both feet down.

It was the kind of athletic play the Steelers need from Wheaton if they want to take advantage when defenses get too preoccupied with covering Brown on the other side of the field. And it wasn’t a fluke. When Pittsburgh got the ball back with 47 seconds left in a stunningly tied game on Sunday, it wasn’t Brown or veteran tight end Heath Miller or versatile running back Le’Veon Bell with the ball in his hands, it was Wheaton.

He pulled in an 11-yard catch to get the drive going before his 20-yard grab gave Shaun Suisham more than enough room to make the winning kick. Roethlisberger didn’t consider the decision to go to Wheaton a gamble.

“It wasn’t like it was some sort of miraculous play on his part,” Roethlisberger said. “I think it was him being him.”

Something the Steelers will need to see regularly on Thursday night when they travel to Baltimore (0-1). The Ravens will do everything they can to shut down Brown, meaning Wheaton should see plenty of single coverage, at least for now.

Asked if he expects Wheaton to get more attention if he continues to make big plays, Brown joked, “I hope so.”

That’s fine by Wheaton. He’s more than happy to play the role of decoy if it means someone else gets open. Last week he was the guy when it counted. Thursday night, it might be someone else. He’s simply happy to be on the field. It seems watching games with a splint on his hand isn’t his idea of a good time.

“This is what we’ve been working for,” Wheaton said. “To show so much so early, I feel like the sky’s the limit for us.”

Former Oregon State wide receiver and current Pittsburgh Steeler Markus Wheaton (11) is dragged down by Cleveland cornerback Justin Gilbert (21) Sunday. AP PHOTO