The journey toward the Super Bowl is now well under way with the Pittsburgh Steelers back practicing at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, still informally referred to as the ‘South Side’ facility. With the regular season standing in their way on the path to a Lombardi, there will be questions for them to answer along the way.
We have asked and answered a lot of questions during the preseason and through training camp, but much of the answer-seeking ends in the regular season, and teams simply have to make do with what they have available to them. Still, there will always be questions for us.
You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring the developments in the regular season and beyond as they develop, looking for the answers as we evaluate the makeup of the Steelers on their way back to the Super Bowl, after reaching the AFC Championship game last season for the first time in more than half a decade.
Question: Who will benefit most from Antonio Brown’s absence over the course of the final two regular season games?
First of all, I do find it a bit odd that Mike Tomlin didn’t rule Brown out for the season finale, but this might just be chalked up to his ‘I’m not a doctor’ approach that he takes to injuries. But if his injury is what was reported, then he’s not playing against the Browns, so we’re assuming a two-game body of work.
What we saw in Sunday’s game against the Patriots after Brown exited does not necessarily reflect what will take place over the course of the next two games, as they will have a week of practice to prepare for new roles. For example, I would expect that Darrius Heyward-Bey will not be playing 30 snaps.
Considering that Brown tends to get at least 10 targets, if not 20, per game, there will be a lot more balls to go around. The Steelers haven’t really had to worry about how to fill his void much over the course of his career, but their playmakers did step up and make plays Sunday.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is already a starter, but he will be a more popular target in Brown’s absence. Martavis Bryant is the player I would expect will benefit the most in terms of snaps played, but not necessarily in terms of production. That remains to be seen.
It should at least afford Justin Hunter a helmet. Oddly, he saw over a dozen snaps in the Packers game, yet saw no targets. But with Brown’s ability to get open, and Ben Roethlisberger’s willingness to throw into tight windows, the checkdown might be the greatest beneficiary.
And considering the way both Le’Veon Bell and Jesse James have played as pass-catchers lately, this might be the most likely answer. Less confidence throwing down the field could see either or both benefit in terms of their receiving numbers.