For the first time in about five years, the Pittsburgh Steelers just played a regular season game without the services of wide receiver Antonio Brown, who despite missing the final two games of the regular season will still finish at or near the top of almost all significant receiving categories for the year.
In his first season as a full-time starter in 2012, Brown missed three games with an injury toward the middle of the season. He returned for the final five games of that season and finished with four touchdown receptions in that time period.
Since then, Brown had not missed a regular season game, or hardly any time at all, due to injury. He did miss the 2015 Divisional Round due to a concussion, and the team clearly looked as though they could have used him.
Yet in Houston yesterday, at least for one evening, the offense didn’t particularly look as though it was badly hurting without him. That is because the offense was efficient and a large number of players stepped up to throw their hand in the pile and make plays and contributions.
There was no player who came in and filled Brown’s shoes. It was a committee approach, and at least for one game, it worked. There will be at least one more game for which they will have to do that, but the Brown-less Steelers have not looked too shabby in the past two weeks, truth be told.
“It was fun spreading the ball around to everybody today”, head coach Mike Tomlin said about his playmakers stepping up in the All-Pro’s absence. “I’m really proud of the way they stepped up. I know everyone was thinking out AB not being out there and trying to fill those shoes, but you can’t fill those shoes. I just tried to tell them don’t try to fill them, be the best you can be. I thought everybody did a great job at that tonight”.
With four different offensive skill position players contributing with at least one carry and six different players—again, without Brown—catching a pass, it was clearly a communal effort to fill Brown’s shoes, but it worked, naturally, as the offense was able to put up 34 points.
As should not be surprising, running back Le’Veon Bell led the way with 69 rushing yards and another 28 yards through the air with a rushing touchdown. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught six passes for 75 yards and a touchdown, while Martavis Bryant added three catches for 60 yards. Vance McDonald caught four passes for 52 yards.
Not to be ignored are Roosevelt Nix and Justin Hunter. Nix just got the first carry of his career, a fullback dive from the one-yard line, scoring his first rushing touchdown—and second overall touchdown. Hunter caught a touchdown on something of a scramble drill on third down from six yards out. Most encouraging, to me, is the fact that Bryant has been pretty consistently contributing about three or four catches for 40 or more yards since the bye. He has seven catches for 119 yards and a touchdown in the past two weeks.