Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown celebrates touchdown catch by Emmanuel Sanders in the third quarter against the Jets.
By Gene Collier Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In an all-but-forgotten moment of unique insight at an early juncture of this misbegotten Steelers season, offensive spokesman Antonio Brown actually blurted this.
"Our theme this season is winning," he said. "Winning."
No one understood then that it was actually that Charlie Sheen kind of winning, the kind that means, you know, falling apart.
So when the Steelers finally gulped a taste of the real thing here Sunday, an actual, official, validated 19-6 victory against the New York Jets, there was still plenty of evidence that the best thing about a fully-deserved 1-4 record is probably that it's better than a barely averted 0-5.
Or as coach Mike Tomlin put it, "It's not like winning the lottery."
Too true, but two truths did emerge as the Steelers came out of the off week with a performance that represented their only approximation of cohesion so far.
Truth One: No matter their record, the Jets stink. Rookie quarterback Geno Smith can wildly overthrow Stephen Hill streaking toward a touchdown on a post pattern, but he can still hit Steelers safety Ryan Clark right between the numbers at the goal line. Rex Ryan's fellas have turned it over 14 times in five games. In one sequence near their goal line in the second half, they had eight players running between their defense and the sideline trying to establish the right personnel package, called time out to ensure they would, then had eight players doing the very same thing before a play was ever run.
Truth Two: Given the dreary state of a Steelers running game that's now celebrating 13 consecutive games without a 100-yard rusher -- they had no rushing first downs at halftime and, to milk even 34 yards from Le'Veon Bell (the running back we've all been waiting for) they had to hand it to him 16 times -- it's perfectly clear that this offense will go only as far as Brown and wideout running mate Emmanuel Sanders can carry it.
And Truth Two is both an exciting and hair-raising proposition.
"I really don't know how it's going to unfold," said Sanders, who beat the New York secondary for a 55-yard touchdown early in the third quarter, the only one of the game. "I'm not a magician or anything; I can't predict what's gonna happen. All I know is that we took care of the football, we created turnovers, and we got the win."
He may not be a magician, but he apparently considers himself an acrobat. To cap off that 55-yard touchdown, Sanders attempted a front flip into the end zone, which resulted only in him hurling himself flat onto his back.
Had he broken something other than the plane of the goal line on that stunt, you'd have had the perfect example of why an offense that is growing more and more dependent on Sanders and Brown is a high-risk -- albeit potentially high-reward -- kind of endeavor.
By parts athletically brilliant and stubbornly immature, these two mercurial wideouts certainly can beat you, sometimes you meaning them and sometimes you meaning you.
"I think A.B.'s growing into the type of receiver where he's making his plays, making plays week in and week out, regardless of what the defense is trying to do to him," said tight end Heath Miller after another valiant effort (6 catches, 84 yards) at helping Ben Roethlisberger keep order in a one-dimensional offense. "That's going to be huge for our offense."
Huge if it isn't disastrous, of course.
Brown fell just one catch short Sunday of becoming only the second Steeler (Hines Ward being the other) to catch 10 or more passes in consecutive games, but he had no one to blame but himself because Roethlisberger hit him with an exquisite back-shoulder throw behind Jets' cover ace Antonio Cromartie for a touchdown that Brown dropped at the boundary.
"He's a competitor and I think he has a lot of respect for me," Brown said of Cromartie, who didn't know until Saturday if he'd be healthy enough to play. "It was a great head-to-head battle. They played a lot of man coverage. We had an opportunity to convert some third downs [but converted only 6 of 16]. We did some positive things, but we could still get better in some situations."
Brown could get a lot better returning punts, a situation in which he calls for a fair catch for no apparent reason but somehow fields them when he needn't risk it. He might do better if he didn't seem so concerned with letting the whole stadium know when he converts a first down, but that's all part of the package.
He was a total handful for New York's respected defense on Sunday, helping Ben convert third-and-15, third-and-10, both on scoring drives, drawing an interference penalty on Cromartie, even throwing a pass and attempting to throw another as he was the clear cutting edge of the Steelers' still pretty crude offensive weapon.
"All I'm focusing on is preparing myself to be my best every week and helping this team," Brown said. "I think we're going to be improving in the running game too. We just have to stay penalty free."
The Steelers endured a season-high seven penalties, five against a paper-thin offensive line that probably played its best game, but it still couldn't spring Bell for better than 2.1 yards per carry.
That remains the precise strain of system failure that will hang undue responsibility on Sanders and Brown, and from there it's just a matter of whether you get The Pretty or you get The Poison.