When Darrius Heyward-Bey was taken seventh overall in the 2009 draft by the Oakland Raiders, he was known more for his speed than production as a player. Immediately labeled another one of the late Al Davis’s famous “reaches” before he had even played a down for silver and black, Heyward-Bey struggled to live up to the heightened expectations that come with being a top-10 pick.
Though Heyward-Bey would have success as a return specialist and put together a 64-catch, 975-yard season in 2011, most of his career was spent being labeled a bust with a propensity for dropping too many passes. After four years with the Raiders, and a one-year stint with the Indianapolis Colts, Heyward-Bey joined the Steelers last season and became a trusted contributor on the special teams unit.
Conversely, his role as a receiver was non-existent; as Heyward-Bey would catch three passes for the season while watching Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and rookie sensation Martavis Bryant take on the brunt of the work for the receiving corps.
Then came the news that Bryant had failed his second drug test and would be suspended for the first four games of the season. Terrible news for the Steelers, but a golden opportunity for Heyward-Bey to fill an important role as one of the Steelers top three receivers heading into the season opener against the New England Patriots next Thursday night.
What’s that favorite saying of Mike Tomlin?
Next man up?
There has been some speculation that rookie Sammie Coates could be in line for the role, it seems a much safer bet that Heyward-Bey will attempt to fill the void left by the Bryant suspension. Although Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported a team source within the organization admitted the Steelers were aware of Bryant’s positive test, and drafted Coates with this in mind, the Steelers would be taking a big gamble asking Coates to play a major part in the offense in the season opener.
Additionally, with the organization aware of Bryant’s impending suspension as far back as the Spring, both Heyward-Bey and Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have been putting in extra work to prepare for an expanded role.
Roethlisberger alluded to that work in an interview with ESPN, along having confidence in Heyward-Bey to get the job done.
“He’s been playing with a lot of confidence, and we have confidence in him,” Roethlisberger said. “I think he’ll step up and be just fine.”
If the Steelers hope to repeat the type of success they had offensively in 2014, Heyward-Bey will join running back DeAngelo Williams and center Cody Wallace as players expected to fill the significant voids left by Bryant, Le’Veon Bell and Maurkice Pouncey.
For Heyward-Bey, it’s clear he’s not only embracing the opportunity to prove he can be a major contributor to the Steeler offense with Bryant suspended, he’s also not letting the past plant seed of doubt about what he can accomplish. Heyward-Bey made that clear in a recent interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune Review.
“I don’t think about the past at all…What I happened when I was 21, I don’t worry about. I’m 28, so I just focused on football. I’ve gotten by all the bumps in the road, and I’ve dealt with the doubt. I’m clear on what I need to do to help the Steelers win.”