The Pittsburgh Steelers are the AFC North champions with two games left to play in the regular season, which assures them a spot in the postseason. And as the conference’s current second seed, the Steelers are in prime position to earn a first-round playoff bye despite falling 27-24 in the last second to the New England Patriots in Week 15.
But there is a major obstacle in the Steelers’ path to maintaining hold of their current seeding, as well as to their hopes of a Super Bowl victory: The calf injury suffered by top Pittsburgh wideout Antonio Brown in the second quarter of Sunday’s loss.
Brown, who was first listed as questionable but then was taken to a hospital for further testing, was revealed to have a partially-torn calf muscle in his left leg. It’s an injury that is expected to cost him the last two games of the regular season, though on Tuesday, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin would only rule out Brown for the Steelers’ Christmas day meeting with the Houston Texans, calling his injury a “significant contusion.”
A loss of Brown for any amount of time is certainly less than ideal for the Steelers. Brown is the league’s leading receiver, with 101 catches for 1,533 yards. He has scored nine of Pittsburgh’s 24 receiving touchdowns and has accounted for a quarter of Ben Roethlisberger’s passing yardage this season. And though there is optimism that Brown will be able to return for the playoffs — particularly if the Steelers can get a first-round bye — he’s not likely to be at 100 percent health. The Steelers will need to find other ways to keep their top-10 offense humming over the next two-plus weeks.
Fortunately for Pittsburgh, there are players in place who can successfully pick up the majority of the slack.
It starts with Roethlisberger, who since the Steelers’ Week 9 bye has been playing inspired football, never completing fewer than 60 percent of his passes and throwing 14 touchdowns to five interceptions. Even against the Patriots, a defense that has had Roethlisberger’s number for his entire career, he put on a clinic, completing 22 of his 30 pass attempts for 281 yards and throwing two touchdowns (as well as that unfortunate, game-losing interception). And he did so without Brown’s help for the majority of the game, a good sign that Roethlisberger may not be as reliant on Brown to have successful outings as previously thought.
This is because the Steelers have a deep, talented roster on offense. Brown’s departure required receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant to step up in Week 15 and both did well; Smith-Schuster caught all six passes thrown his way for 114 yards, including a 69-yard catch-and-run that nearly resulted in Roethlisberger throwing the game-winning touchdown to tight end Jesse James, while Bryant had four catches for 59 yards and a score. The pair will doubtlessly have increased roles in the next two weeks and potentially into the postseason, granted that Brown is indeed physically limited upon his return.
But the main focus of Pittsburgh’s offense over the next two weeks is most certainly going to be running back Le’Veon Bell, who does so much more than just carry the football. When he does, however, he’s the best in the league, leading all backs in carries and yards, with 307 rushes for 1,222 yards and accounting for all eight of Pittsburgh’s rushing scores. He also factors in heavily in Pittsburgh’s passing game, with 80 receptions for 627 yards and two touchdowns, and is averaging 132.1 yards per game thanks both to his rushing and receiving prowess. Though Bell saw only six targets against New England, expect Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley to scheme in more ways to get the ball into Bell’s hands over the coming weeks.
Though the Steelers have relatively easy matchups to close out the regular season, first facing Houston in Week 16 and the Cleveland Browns in Week 17, they do need to keep up their winning ways. The Jacksonville Jaguars have just one more loss than Pittsburgh and could vault into the No. 2 seed and that much-needed first round playoff bye if the Steelers falter. And these two remaining matchups now have an added degree of difficulty without Brown’s services.
While it is encouraging that Brown has not been ruled out of the Cleveland game and that the injury may not be as serious as first feared, losing him for any stretch of time is a clear setback for the Steelers’ Super Bowl hopes. That they have the talent to mitigate for his absence is a comfort, but there is no question that the Steelers are a much bigger postseason threat when Brown is healthy, on the field and making plays.