PITTSBURGH — Antonio Brown’s locker sat empty on Friday save for the stack of cardboard boxes pushed off to the side, items the Pittsburgh Steelers star wide receiver hasn’t gotten around to unpacking just yet. The All-Pro is too busy trying to get his injured left calf ready in time for Pittsburgh’s division playoff game to worry about wading into his ever-expanding universe of swag.
The AFC North champions are optimistic Brown’s familiar No. 84 will run out of the tunnel at Heinz Field on Jan. 14. Brown hasn’t played a snap since injuring the leg while trying to haul in a touchdown pass in the second quarter against New England on Dec. 17. If for some reason his leg doesn’t heal in time, the Steelers (13-3) are confident they can thrive without him.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen with 84,” veteran receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said. “Things sound good but we don’t know. I’m confident because we put the work in. You saw it in the Patriots game. We didn’t panic when AB got hurt. Guys rolled in, played ball. The last few weeks we’ve been doing that.”
Pittsburgh persevered thanks in part to the precocious development of rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster, the resilience of Martavis Bryant and offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s refusal to pigeon hole the many weapons at his disposal. Haley insists that every wide receiver and tight end learn how to run every route from every conceivable spot along the line of scrimmage. Even running back Le’Veon Bell (whose 85 receptions ranked 10th in the league) is required to pick it up.
“We’ve got to keep it unpredictable,” tight end Jesse James said. “We can’t let defense know where AB is going to line up every time. That goes for everybody. We’re always looking to see different matchups.”
Ones the Steelers exploited even with Brown out.
Smith-Schuster averaged 110 yards receiving over the final three games. Bryant’s tumultuous return from a yearlong suspension, a return that included an early-season trade demand, ended with a flourish. He caught 13 passes for 184 yards and a touchdown over the last three weeks. Even reserves Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter found the end zone as Pittsburgh bounced back from a difficult loss to the Patriots to clinch a first-round playoff bye.
Don’t get Brown’s teammates wrong. Pittsburgh is infinitely better with the only unanimous selection on the NFL’s 2017 All-Pro team in the lineup. Yet the drop-off isn’t quite as steep as it would have been a year ago, when Bryant was out of the league, Smith-Schuster was still in college and injuries forced the Steelers to use a largely anonymous group to fill in the gaps.
It speaks to the depth Pittsburgh has cultivated over the last 12 months that Cobi Hamilton, who caught the team’s lone touchdown pass in an AFC title game loss to New England, didn’t survive the final round of cuts in August.
“Out of all the years I’ve been here, I’m confident knowing we have more hands, we have more in our deck of cards,” said Heyward-Bey, now in his fourth season with the Steelers. “We’ve got more things going on.”
Smith-Schuster has been a revelation as both a route runner and an enthusiastic blocker in the running game. And Brown’s absence has given Bryant the playing time he was looking for when he went to the team in September and asked to be traded. Things have quieted down since, and his production level ticked up as the season went along. Bryant had at least four receptions in five of Pittsburgh’s last six games. He only had one game with more than four receptions over the first 10 weeks.
Bryant stressed the receivers didn’t “add more pressure to ourselves” when Brown went down but added “everybody wants to have AB’s back and be great for him.” Perhaps no one has more at stake than the 26-year-old Bryant, who showed flashes of greatness in in 2014-15 before multiple violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy put his career in jeopardy. The road back has been rocky but nothing Bryant says he can’t handle.
“This is nothing compared to what I’ve been through,” Bryant said. “This is a walk in the park for me. Just happy to be back. This year almost over. We got three more games left, looking forward to those and see what happens.”