clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Meet the young players behind the Steelers' resurgence

Snoop Dogg shouldn't have anything to complain about when it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers offense in the second half of the season.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had himself a historic day last Sunday against the Colts, completing a ridiculous 40 of 46 attempts for a cool 522 yards and six touchdowns without taking a sack or throwing a pick. Even by modern passing game standards, that stat-line is impressive. Hell, by Madden standards, that stat line is stupid. Big Ben had been quietly heating up again this season even before this matchup, but taking this masterful performance and absurd line into account, he's completed 70 percent of his passes for 1,798 yards, 7.82 yards per attempt, 15 touchdowns, and only one pick over his last six outings, good for a 113 quarterback rating. Not shabby, huh?

Pittsburgh can be a little hard to figure out on a week-to-week basis, but with the arsenal of weapons that the Steeler front office has put around Roethlisberger this year, they're a force to be reckoned with on that side of the ball and could very easily get better as the season goes on.

Pittsburgh developing new core set of weapons

The Steelers' front office kind of knows how to draft receivers, it seems like. After drafting and developing Mike Wallace, they lost him to the Dolphins two years ago. The same could be said for Emmanuel Sanders, who they lost in free agency to the Broncos this year (Sanders just happened to score a touchdown hat trick this week, by the way). Despite letting these guys walk in order to focus the salary cap elsewhere, Pittsburgh has what looks to be a pretty exciting core nucleus to work with at that position this season.

Antonio Brown has emerged as one of, if not the best receivers in the game right now. Markus Wheaton has struggled early in his career to get up to speed but caught his first touchdown this past week against the Colts and certainly has the tools to develop as that Wallace type speed threat. Of course, Martavis Bryant emerged as a potential star these past two weeks as a lethal combination of downfield speed threat and red zone jump ball threat.

With Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell already established as the two-headed offensive monster for the Steelers, the emergence of one of Wheaton or Bryant could really add a new dynamic to Pittsburgh's attack.

Le'Veon Bell

It's no secret that Bell is emerging as a premiere back in this league but the thing that strikes me is how different he looks now as compared to the type of player he was in college. He was a quality back at Michigan State, of course, but after slimming down to probably something closer to 220 or 225 from his listed college weight of 244, he's become a deadly threat in the run game as well as an outlet receiver in the passing game. Some players are who you thought they'd be in the NFL, and then there are the players that make you double-take once in the pros. That's Bell, for me anyway.

Bell's lateral quickness and explosiveness are the first things that jump out at you when watching him run in the pros, and he's juked and cut his way to third on the NFL list of yards after contact through eight weeks. He's forced 22 missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus' tracking, the same amount as LeSean McCoy, incidentally, in almost exactly the same amount of carries. He's also averaging a full 1.2 YPC (4.9 to 3.7) more than McCoy thus far this season.

Bell has 1,086 all purpose yards this season between rushing and receiving - 691 yards on the ground and 395 through the air on 42 catches.

He's not Pittsburgh's only workhorse, though.

Antonio Brown

You want to know why Brown is one of the best receivers in the NFL? Watch this GIF on loop for a little while....

Then pair that quickness and agility with those hands.

"Antonio is playing at that type of level at wide receiver, a J.J. Watt-type of level," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said recently. "He's one of the best in the world at what he does and he's mentally and physically on top of his game. He's a known issue (for defenses) but he still performs. We can say similar things about guys like J.J. Watt. We knew what he was capable [of] when we were getting ready to play him but it still doesn't stop the storm from coming."

Tomlin comparing Brown to Watt sounds like hyperbole but his point hits home. Everyone knows that Brown is going to be the focal point and that he's going to get the ball, but he still gets open, still makes people miss, and still gets into the end zone, a lot. He's an atypical No. 1 receiver in that he's only 5'10, 190 pounds or so, but he fits the definition that I heard's Daniel Jeremiah throw out there for what he considers a No. 1 receiver: "On third down, in the redzone -- everybody knows you're getting the football and there's nothing they can do about it."

Martavis Bryant emerging, Markus Wheaton improving

With Brown and Bell as your go-to guys in this offense (and don't forget the dependable Heath Miller, of course), getting second year receiver Wheaton and/or rookie Bryant integrated in could pay huge dividends for the effectiveness and consistency of the group.

Wheaton has struggled to acclimate to the pro game thus far, but had an encouraging week vs. Indy by catching five passes for 53 yards and a touchdown. Bryant, though, looks to be on the verge of breaking out as the No. 2 receiver in Pittsburgh after suiting up the last two games, and that's something that offense has really needed so they can attack downfield away from coverage that's tilted to Brown.

You can see that below. The deep middle safety has his eyes in on Antonio Brown running a slant from right to left, and only breaks on the Bryant route outside once the ball is thrown. It's far too late at that point, and Bryant's speed is apparent as he runs right past the corner in coverage. Big Ben throws a dime, too.

Below, similar effect. Bell releases from the backfield, and the Colts, in their matchup zone look, widen at the snap. On the inside, the safety over the top sees Miller running a route up the hashes, and that leaves Bryant wide open on a little outside-fake in-cutting route. This is exactly how the Steelers designed it to work against this defense.

Of course, it always pays to have a big guy on the outside that you can just throw the ball up for. Bryant did this at Clemson and shows here he can do it in the NFL -- great hand-fighting to get off of the jam, then great timing and hand-eye coordination to reel it in and get his feet inbounds.


There's a lot of season left and the Steelers will have to maintain some consistency going forward, but the types of things Pittsburgh put on tape against the Colts makes you think their offense is poised to take a big step forward in the second half. If Bryant and/or Wheaton can emerge as viable threats in the offense, the sky is the limit for Ben Roethlisberger and his group. As Big Ben said after the game, "I told everybody, 'Why does it have to stop here? Why can't we just keep doing this?' "