By Chris Emma—
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) – After four years of working as a complement to All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh, Markus Wheaton will line up Sunday at Soldier Field on the opposite sideline and in a much different position.
Wheaton is working his way back from a fractured pinkie finger suffered in training camp, and the Bears are hoping he can be their top target against the Steelers. He was signed by Chicago with the hopes that his previous production alongside Brown could translate to the Bears’ own offense. Now, they’re counting on it to prove true.
The longest completion for quarterback Mike Glennon through two games as the starter has been for 22 yards. The Bears desperately need Wheaton to bring a new element to their offense.
“I want to make plays down the field,” Wheaton said Wednesday before practice at Halas Hall. “Hopefully, when I get in, that’s what I’m doing.”
The Bears are trying to avoid going 0-3 for a third straight season. Their most glaring need is at receiver, where Cameron Meredith is out for the season and Kevin White is back on injured reserve. Glennon has struggled, namely during an ugly 29-7 loss at Tampa Bay on Sunday, but he’s doing so without a major threat at receiver.
During his four seasons with the Steelers, Wheaton posted 16 catches of more than 20 yards and seven for more than 40. A shoulder injury decimated his 2016 season, which brought only four receptions. During two healthy seasons in 2014 and 2015, he posted a combined 97 catches for 1,393 yards and seven touchdowns.
Still, the Steelers allowed him to walk into free agency. Bears general manager Ryan Pace became enamored with what Wheaton could bring, signing him to a two-year deal worth up to $11 million and with $6 million guaranteed. After making the signing, Pace referenced how Wheaton was ninth in football with 17.0 yards per reception in 2015.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looked to Wheaton as a key target.
“Sad to see him go,” Roethlisberger said on a teleconference Wednesday. “In terms of a football player, you’re getting a guy who’s very smart, he knew our offense very well, could stretch the field, made some very big plays for us when we needed him.
“I thought that he really had some good technique when it came to the deep ball and getting away from DBs.”
Added Glennon: “We’re kind of growing into a speed offense with Tarik (Cohen) and those receivers. I think it can really stretch the defense and we can run by guys, we can throw it deep. So (Wheaton) definitely adds another dimension. It’ll be great having Markus back.”
Not much has gone Wheaton’s way since he signed with the Bears. He had to undergo an emergency appendectomy early in training camp, then suffered the finger fracture his second day back.
Glennon hopes for the same results from Wheaton. Though he doesn’t have a talent like Brown lining up out wide, he also doesn’t have a choice but to seek new elements in his offense. Fans are clamoring for rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky as the Bears stand by Glennon as their starter. Kendall Wright, Deonte Thompson and Josh Bellamy haven’t allowed Glennon much chance to open up the offense.
Through two starts, Glennon has completed 67.1 percent of his passes but for just nine yards per completion, the latter of which ranks 29th in football. The rest of the offense has been negatively affected. The Buccaneers often loaded the box with safeties and stuffed the running game with extra bodies near the line of scrimmage. Bears running back Jordan Howard had just seven carries on nine yards in the worst game of his young career.
Wheaton isn’t a proven commodity by any means, but he provides a threat that has been missing. Bears offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains is already counting Wheaton into the game plan.
“We’re hoping it creates more three-level throws,” Loggains said. “There is an element of speed that comes with Markus. That’s his strength, and (we’re) hoping that he adds that kind of value to our offense.”