Second-best receivers on the Steelers aren’t “receivers”
Remember when it was a really big deal about who would replace Martavis Bryant?
Or how about who would step up alongside Antonio Brown? There was a thought that another receiver needed to make the leap to help take pressure off of AB with double teams earlier in the year. That player at one point had been Sammie Coates, who ripped off 19 catches for 421 yards and 5 touchdowns in his first five games of the year, before hand/finger injuries derailed his 2016 season.
The narrative then became “who would step up?”
- Markus Wheaton battled a shoulder injury and was placed on Injured Reserve.
- Darrius Heyward-Bey too would become injured.
- Eli Rogers was in, then out, then back in.
- Cobi Hamilton was called up from the practice squad.
Along with Coates, that’s the entire wide receiver corps, which at one time or another, was down, out, or not even on the roster.
Those seem like afterthoughts now.
Despite all of the adversity, the Steelers have found a way to take the pressure off of Antonio Brown by completing passes: just not to receivers.
I’ve long argued that the second-best receiver on the Pittsburgh Steelers is a running back: Le’Veon Bell. Bell entered Week 13 as the running back with the most receptions in the NFL, and is currently edged by Arizona’s David Johnson by one catch, for the lead in receptions by backs.
Bell has played in 3 less games this season, accumulating the league’s 20th most receptions with 63 receptions for 501 yards and a touchdown. Bell’s 63 catches are also second-most on the Steelers, to Brown’s league-leading 88 catches.
The next Steeler with the most catches following Bell?
Another “non-receiver” (as I’ll call it in this article for simplicity) in tight end Jesse James, who has caught 32 balls this season for 268 yards and 3 touchdowns.
However, over the last 3-4 games, it’s the backs and tight ends who have gotten hot, and have helped take the pressure off of Antonio Brown.
In the last 4 games, Bell has caught 27 passes for 218 yards. James has had 8 catches for 96 yards. And the Steelers latest addition, TE Ladarius Green, has had a huge impact with 11 catches for 207 yards and a score.
Green has mostly been a part-time player, accumulating more reps as each game has gone by. On Sunday, against the Giants, Green put up a career day with 6 catches for 110 yards and a TD, on his most snaps of the season (playing in less than half of the offensive plays).
His previous career high was the 67 yards he gained against the Colts; in other words, Green’s stock is rising.
Combined, the contributions from the backs and tight ends have skyrocketed a “slow” start by Antonio Brown. When considering Brown’s previous accomplishments over the years, he has exploded into a major force to be reckoned with over the last four games: AB has caught 33 passes 375 yards and 5 touchdowns.
In his previous 8 games, Brown accumulated 55 receptions for 677 yards and 6 touchdowns: averaging 30 less yards per game, and an average of a little over one catch less as well.
Those may seem like decent numbers, but were otherwise pedestrian statistics as Brown tries to one-up his previous season. The surprising stat in Antonio’s rise isn’t that another receiver is being thrown to much more: of Ben Roethlisberger‘s 36 attempts against the Giants, 23 of those targets went to backs or tight ends.
In the previous game against the Colts, Ben threw 9 of his 20 passes to “non-receivers” while 15 of his 36 targets against the Browns fell in the same category.
Over this same period of time, Brown has been targeted 7 (Giants) 6 (Colts) and 10 (Browns) times. It’s a healthy workload. Antonio is still scorching the Earth as a vaunted wide receiver, but the entire Steelers offense doesn’t have to rely on him, or any other wide receiver, for the team to be successful.
Pittsburgh has put up at least 24 points in each of those last 4 games, with marks of 30, 24, 28, and 24 points respectively.
The ability to take pressure off of Brown has opened up the Steelers offense, and still leaves the door open for someone like Eli Rogers, DHB, or Sammie Coates to pickup the other passes left to spread around in Todd Haley’s offense.
This makes the Steelers a deadly team for opposing defenses as we head into the last quarter of the 2016 season. If any of those aforementioned names are able to produce at wide receiver, Pittsburgh could easily put up 30+ points per game.
In the meantime, it’s those “non-receivers” that are having a huge impact as the Steelers “number 2” pass catchers on the team.
From the looks of things, that’s not a bad alternative at all.