Through eight games, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown is averaging a little over 84 yards per game. And he has over 100 yards in just three of those games — against Washington (126 yards), the Philadelphia Eagles (140 yards) and the New England Patriots (106 yards).
The rest of the Steelers’ wide receiving corps hasn’t fared much better.
Pittsburgh’s wideouts have been riddled with injury — Markus Wheaton (shoulder), Eli Rogers (toe) and Darrius Heyward-Bey (foot) will all have missed games — and the group has been hindered by the fact that Martavis Bryant is out for the whole season due to a drug-related suspension. It also doesn’t help that rookie Sammie Coates, who has shown promising flashes, has had issues with dropped passes.
When the wide receivers have been in the game, they haven’t done all that much. Last season, the Steelers had one of the most potent offenses in the league, finishing third in total offense. This season, Pittsburgh ranks 19th in total offense with an average of 360.4 yards per game.
Brown, who is widely regarded as one of the top wideouts in the league, has had to deal with double — and sometimes triple — coverage. After last week’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Brown told reporters that his fellow wide receivers need to start doing more.
“They need to find a way to step in, step up and make plays,” Brown said. “It’s been about eight weeks so far, and that’s what we’ve been seeing — double coverage. Today, it was triple coverage with the linebacker coming over, and we just have to find ways to win. Other guys have to step up.”
The Steelers are now coming off a rough stretch on the schedule, with three losses in a row — to the Miami Dolphins, Patriots and Ravens. And Sunday, Pittsburgh has to take on the 7-1 Dallas Cowboys, who haven’t lost a game since Week 1.
But the good news is that Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is (mostly) healthy. Roethlisberger missed the game against the Patriots after having knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus, and he looked off-kilter for the first three quarters of the game versus Baltimore — before looking like his typical gunslinger self in the fourth quarter. (But, by then, it was too late for Pittsburgh to take the ‘W.’)
Pittsburgh is also a team that seems to play better against good teams, so the Steelers have to be looking forward to testing their mettle against one of the top teams in the NFL — as well as a historical rival.
Perhaps no one is more excited to take on Dallas than Brown. While the Cowboys haven’t allowed a 100-yard receiver this season, Dallas has yet to face a wideout like Brown. The Cowboys will be without defensive backs Barry Church and Morris Claiborne, and Orlando Scandrick doesn’t look like his pre-injury self, all of which should give Brown some freedom to roam and create chaos.
At this point last season, Brown was averaging a little under 90 yards per game. But he picked up in the second half of the season and finished with an average of almost 115 yards per game. In 2015, Brown had nine 100-plus yard games, including a 284-yard game against the Oakland Raiders, a 195-yard game against the San Francisco 49ers, and a 189-yard game against the Denver Broncos.
But Brown is just one guy, and he can only do so much. Last season, the Steelers had a phenomenal No. 2 receiver in Bryant, and Pittsburgh still had Roethlisberger-favorite target Heath Miller, a tight end, on the roster.
Sunday, to beat the Cowboys, the Steelers desperately need wideouts like Rogers and Cobi Hamilton and tight ends Jesse James and Xavier Grimble to make big plays and test the Cowboys’ conservative defense. Coates’ speed could also be a huge bonus — assuming he can figure out how to hold onto the football.
Pittsburgh will also finally get to see tight end Ladarius Green, who had been on the PUP list since the start of the season with an ankle and/or head injury. Per NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, Green will play Sunday versus Dallas, giving Roethlisberger another much-needed target. The Steelers signed Green to a four-year, $20 million contract this offseason.
Despite sitting at 4-4 on the season, Pittsburgh’s season is far-from over. The typically tough AFC North is much weaker than in past seasons, and the Steelers have a pretty easy schedule from here on out (including two games against the as-of-yet winless Cleveland Browns).
However, the Steelers can’t do much with the offense playing the way it is now. Pittsburgh can no longer rely on its defense, as in years past, and the offense needs to start carrying its weight.
A big performance against Dallas — one that ends with a nice ‘W’ — could be the start of a much-needed turnaround in the Steel City.
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