“You’re not going to get anybody better than these two guys [Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster], plus the quarterback [Ben Roethlisberger],” Belichick said two weeks ago as the New England Patriots prepared for Pittsburgh’s offense. “They have a lot of other guys, too, but these two receivers are elite. Elite, elite.”
But while Belichick prepares his Patriots for what looks like yet another first-round playoff bye, the Steelers are losers of four of five games, with shaky playoff prospects despite fielding a receiving duo for the ages.
Smith-Schuster (106 catches for 1,389 yards) and Brown (104 catches for 1,297 yards) have become the NFL’s fifth teammate combination to have 100 catches and 1,200 receiving yards in the same season, and they still have a game to play.
A monster finale against the Cincinnati Bengals will get them closer to the 1995 Detroit Lions tandem of Herman Moore and Brett Perriman, who combined for 231 catches for 3,174 yards. The last pair to hit the 100-1,200 club was Denver’s Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders in 2014.
None of these duos made a Super Bowl in those seasons, but it’s impressive nonetheless. John Stallworth and Lynn Swann will forever live in Steelers folklore for their Super Bowl pedigree at receiver, but the Smith-Schuster/Brown combo might fight for franchise-duo supremacy soon enough.
Basically, the Steelers can pass 75 percent of the time while primarily targeting two players and get the offense they want.
For the season, the duo has 324 targets, more than 50 percent of the Steelers’ passing game.
The two are producing so consistently that defenses are having a harder time keeping up, tight end Vance McDonald said.
“Late in the season, it’s really hard for teams to manage putting two guys on AB and sustain the level of competition defending guys one-on-one,” McDonald said. “Definitely in this last game, we felt with our attack they didn’t have the weapons to keep up with us in five-wide.”
All this coincides with Roethlisberger’s biggest season statistically. In his 15th season, Roethlisberger leads the NFL in completions (421) and passing yards (4,842). His 33 touchdown passes are a career high and a single-season franchise record.
Without Le’Veon Bell for the season and James Conner the past three games, the Steelers have expanded their passing-game versatility, and teammates think that attack would result in serious damage in the playoffs.
“We pride ourselves on having a good offense,” guard David DeCastro said. “This team is playing pretty well. We’re just finding ways to lose games that are really close.”
The Steelers have the league’s fourth-ranked total offense without a consistent No. 3 receiver. McDonald is clearly the third option with 47 catches, 571 yards and four touchdowns, but McDonald says the Steelers haven’t tapped into their full potential because of a rookie.
“If James Washingtonrealizes how good he can be, it will be even harder [for defenses] ,” said McDonald, who adds that Washington’s talent is undeniable but that he needs to play more confidently. The second-round pick has 13 catches for 153 yards.
Until Washington catches up, the Steelers have arguably the best receiver in Brown and an emerging top-10 guy who Belichick says is legit in any offense.
“He’s a dynamic player, tremendous player,” Belichick said of Smith-Schuster. “Very good with the ball in his hands, great hands. Makes some spectacular catches, hard to tackle. He’s very good.”