Pittsburgh Steelers' Big 3 Remains Driving Force for Super Bowl Contention

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystDecember 11, 2017

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) celebrates a 39-38 win over the Baltimore Ravens in an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Monday, Dec. 11, 2017. The Steelers won the clinched the AFC North Championship with the win. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
Don Wright/Associated Press

There was a point Sunday night when the Pittsburgh Steelers offense went from spectacular to sputtering with little warning. Their eventual, thrilling 39-38 win over the Baltimore Ravens to clinch a second straight AFC North title was hard to imagine.

For a brief moment in the third quarter, championship contention was hard to imagine, too. The Steelers temporarily melted and let their early two-touchdown lead fade away. They came out of halftime flat against a stifling Ravens defense that produced two straight three-and-outs in the third quarter alone, a quarter when the Steelers were outscored 17-0.

But such moments never seem to last long for the Steelers. It takes a special and dedicated effort to truly blow a game when wide receiver Antonio Brown, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Le’Veon Bell are around to ignite a stagnant unit.

It is possible for one of the three to be lukewarm on any given night. Or even two, if the Steelers are especially unlucky that week. The blueprint for offensive success is often finding the hot hand and feeding it, after all, and the Steelers have plenty of potential sizzle to choose from.

But on the nights when they don’t have to choose, and when all three are merrily marching downfield, the Steelers look downright terrifying for any opponent, including the defending champion New England Patriots.

The showdown between those two teams for AFC supremacy looms in Week 15. And it comes with the Steelers offense at peak explosiveness—especially Brown, who simply can’t be covered right now.

His near-weekly heroics continued Sunday night, as did the delicate sideline tap dancing that still widens eyes, even if it has become routine for him. Brown recorded his second career game with 200-plus receiving yards, and it was highlighted by a 34-yard catch with just over a minute left.

Brown gained ample separation with ease and then glided down the sideline to make the grab, setting up Chris Boswell’s game-winning 46-yard field goal with 42 seconds left.

The Ravens had the league’s third-ranked secondary heading into Week 14, allowing only 198.6 passing yards per game. That didn’t matter. The opponent rarely means anything when Brown is on the field to do his usual act of sprinting, catching, sharp cutting through routes and generally playing the hero.

That catch will stand out because it put the Steelers in position to win and led to their sixth division title during the Mike Tomlin era. But Brown’s evening was dotted with plays in which he separated defensive backs from their dignity.

He also had chunk gains on receptions of 22, 27, 28 and 57 yards. He finished the night with 11 catches, the third time in the past four games Brown has hit double digits. And his 213-yard performance against the Ravens (yes, the math on that is an incredible 19.4 yards per reception) is just the latest in a line of roastings.

The 29-year-old is in full late-season volcano mode and has recorded 627 receiving yards over the Steelers’ past four games.

Antonio Brown's Late-Season Surge
WeekCatchesReceptionsTD
11101443
12101692
1381011
14112130
Source: NFL.com

On the other end of those passes and Brown’s dominance is Roethlisberger, the second in a three-pronged barrage of firepower.

There were times earlier in the 2017 season when Roethlisberger started to look like, well, a 35-year-old who has recently entertained thoughts of retirement. Rock bottom came during a Week 5 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, when he threw five interceptions.

Now, that seems like it happened in a different season. The Steelers haven’t lost since, reeling off eight straight wins as their quarterback gradually returns to his five-time Pro Bowl form. Like Brown, he’s risen over the last four weeks, too, averaging 361.5 passing yards per game during that span.

That average was boosted and given a swift kick to the rear by Roethlisberger’s 506 passing yards Sunday night.

While you gawk at that number, please remember Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense spent an entire quarter producing almost nothing. During that third-quarter dud, he threw for just 58 yards, which didn’t stop him from making history, as NFL Research noted:

Then there’s Bell, and listing him third while treating the league’s most patient running back like an afterthought shows the power of the Steelers offense.

Bell had a ho-hum night by his standards, settling for a measly 125 yards from scrimmage after two straight weeks with 180-plus. It’s clear Bell can take hold of game whenever he pleases because his good weeks are on par with great outings from most other running backs around the league. Bell did that in his own way by scoring three times against the Ravens, showing versatility with two coming on the ground and another as a runner when he was split out wide.

What’s always frightening about the Steelers offense is that more than one core weapon is capable of erupting any week. And often more than one does erupt, making the unit as a whole almost impossible to contain.

If they’re able to unseat the Patriots from their AFC throne, it’ll be because of that unmatched offensive versatility. The measuring-stick game looms, and the two teams seem destined to collide again in the AFC championship.

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