Without Brown, Bryant and Wheaton would take center stage
January 14, 2016 12:00 AM
Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton hauls in pass for a first down against the Bengals in the first in Cincinnati.
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Steelers have won games with backup quarterbacks this season. They’ve won with a backup running backs, including third- and fourth-stringers in the AFC wild-card victory Saturday night against the Cincinnati Bengals.
But, when the Steelers play Denver in an AFC divisional-round game Sunday, they might be faced with the prospect of winning for the first time this season without All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown.
Brown, who was concussed late in the fourth quarter on a hit from Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict, remained in the NFL concussion protocol Wednesday and did not practice when the Steelers began preparations for the Broncos. If Brown cannot play, it would be a huge blow after he accounted for 30 percent of the team’s offensive yards in the regular season.
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“You can never just plug someone in for A.B. because A.B. is pretty special,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “We’ve had guys step up all year. If A.B. can’t go, then we have faith and confidence that the next guy will step up and be the best player [he] can be.”
It’s true. There is no replacement for 136 receptions, 1,834 yards and 10 touchdowns. But the player most capable of assuming that No. 1 receiving role is Martavis Bryant, the talented second-year player who finished second on the team in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns despite missing the first five games.
“He’s the leader of the receiver group,” Bryant said of Brown. “Not having him out there will be tough, but, at the same time, we have to step up and pick up the slack for him.”
Bryant caught 50 passes for 765 yards and 6 touchdowns, but his consistency has been problematic. He had just two catches over the final two regular-season games, which prompted Roethlisberger to challenge him publicly to “toughen up.”
Bryant responded against the Bengals. He had five receptions for 29 yards, including an acrobatic touchdown catch that ranks among the best in NFL postseason history. He also took a reverse handoff 44 yards to set up a field goal.
“I thought he did great, stepped up, played well and made some big plays for us,” Roethlisberger said. “We just need him to continue to do that.”
The Steelers haven’t had to win without Brown in quite some time. He hasn’t missed a game since the 2012 season when he missed three in a row with an ankle injury. None of the other receivers on the team this season were on that team.
The Steelers went 1-2 in those games and their only win came against the Kansas City Chiefs in overtime.
“We voted him our team MVP for a reason,” tight end Heath Miller said. “He’s productive every week for us. He makes plays every week. We would prefer for him to be in the lineup, for sure.”
And if he doesn’t play?
“We have faith in other guys in the locker room,” Miller said. “We see guys on a daily basis. If he’s not able to go, we’re not going to not make the trip.”
Of the injured triumvirate, Roethlisberger appears to be the most likely to play. He did not practice Wednesday but said he will do whatever is necessary to play Sunday as long as his presence is not hurting the team.
Running back DeAngelo Williams, who injured his right foot in the regular-season finale in Cleveland, remained in a walking boot and did not practice.
In addition to Bryant, more would be expected of Markus Wheaton (44 catches for 749 yards), Darrius Heyward-Bey (21 catches for 314 yards) and rookie Sammie Coates (one catch for 11 yards) if Brown cannot play.
“It’s time for us to step up and prove to everyone that we can do it,” Wheaton said. “Obviously, we want A.B. out there, but, if he’s not, we embrace the challenge.”
Coates hasn’t been active since the Nov. 15 game against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field. His lone catch came in Week 4 against Baltimore.
“Sammie brings speed, strength, he’s a bigger receiver,” Wheaton said. “He’s developed into a good-hands catcher. He brings confidence if A.B. does have to sit out.”
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.
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