PITTSBURGH (AP) — Antonio Brown can do a lot of things, most of them spectacularly. Weaving his way through three defenders to get open, however, is not one of them.
For the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense to snap out of its midseason malaise, the All-Pro wide receiver needs help. While Brown is in the midst of another 100-catch season, no other Pittsburgh wideout is on pace for more than 40. During last Sunday’s loss in Baltimore, Brown was the only Pittsburgh receiver with a reception until early in the fourth quarter.
“Darrius Heyward-Bey, Sammie Coates and Cobi Hamilton, I think, collectively had zero catches,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “You have to balance it out. You can’t allow people to do some of the things that they’ve been able to do against Antonio without repercussions. When we’re functioning well, it’s because those potential other guys, like I’m talking about, are producing plays.”
That was something that happened with regularity over the season’s first five weeks. The Steelers raced to a 4-1 record and alleviated concerns they would struggle to find a complement to Brown with talented but mercurial Martavis Bryant serving a one-year suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
Then the injuries and the losses started piling up. Slot guy Eli Rogers went down with a turf toe in Week 3, then was briefly benched when he returned for reasons coach Mike Tomlin declined to elaborate on. The best day of Coates’ brief career — six grabs for 139 yards and two scores in a romp over the Jets in Week 5 — also coincided with a laceration between the index and middle fingers of his left hand. Suddenly, his hot start was a memory.
Heyward-Bey darted 60 yards to the end zone on an end-around against Miami, and made a beautiful toe-tapping touchdown in New England, only to sprain his foot in Baltimore. Markus Wheaton entered the season as a starter, but a sprained shoulder that has lingered for the better part of two months has made him a nonfactor.
While running back Le’Veon Bell may be the best run/catch dual threat in the league, he’s more safety valve than sprinter.
“If you can contain 84 (Brown) and 7 (Roethlisberger) then everything else will fall in its place,” said Ravens defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, a game plan sure to be copied by the Dallas Cowboys (7-1) this weekend — and everyone else the Steelers might play until they sort things out.
Rogers appears on the verge of getting back to the form he flashed in Week 1, pulling in six balls — all in the fourth quarter — against Baltimore. Tight end Ladarius Green, signed in March to become the downfield threat Heath Miller was not, is nearing his return from the physically unable to perform list. Coates is playing even as the finger heals, though he’s been a decoy more than anything and dropped a pass in the end zone in the fourth quarter against Baltimore that forced the Steelers to eat up more time as they tried to put together a rally.
Pittsburgh (4-4) doesn’t need someone to out-Brown Brown. But the Steelers are well aware they need to get production elsewhere when Brown is bottled up.
“It might not be a high-volume number of plays, but it’s significant plays,” Tomlin said. “Whether it’s a significant possession down, whether it’s a field-flipping play, whether it’s a touchdown.”
Anything to give Brown even the tiniest sliver of freedom.
“If teams are going to try to take the underneath stuff away, you have to hit the deep stuff,” Roethlisberger said. “And when they take the deep stuff away, you have to hit the underneath stuff. It’s taking what the defense gives you. You just need to continue to grow in all areas of our offense, whether that’s short or deep, or inside or out.”
And if the players are unsure about how to get there, Roethlisberger has a bit of advice. This isn’t the first time in his 13-year career the Steelers have reached the midpoint a bit of a mess. There’s time to clean it up if everyone chips in.
“Follow me,” Roethlisberger said. “Guys who have been here who know, no time or reason to panic.”
NOTES: C Maurkice Pouncey (thumb), RB DeAngelo Williams (knee) and S Jordan Dangerfield (groin) did not practice Wednesday. … LB Bud Dupree practiced Wednesday, testing the groin injury that forced the team to put him on the injured reserve list in September.