PITTSBURGH – It’s already well known that the Steelers are reliant on their offensive stars.
Last season, for example, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown accounted for 53 percent of the team’s total offense.
This season, the Steelers have leaned even more heavily on Bell and Brown. Six games into the season, the duo has accounted for 67 percent of Pittsburgh’s offensive output. Brown and Bell are the first players in NFL history to each have 700 total yards through their team’s first six games.
While Brown and Bell have thrived, the Steelers’ offense hasn’t necessarily followed suit, showing the need for other players to become playmakers in the offense.
Finding somebody other than Bell and Brown to contribute has been on ongoing issue for the Steelers as they prepare to host Cincinnati (2-3) Sunday at Heinz Field.
While the Steelers (4-2) had 439 total yards Sunday in their win at Kansas City, Bell and Brown contributed 346.
It only added up to 19 points, however, as Pittsburgh’s offensive output didn’t match its dominance of the game.
“I thought we had an opportunity to really blow the game open in the first half but we weren’t able to get under that kick after the safety. Then we turned the ball over at midfield,” head coach Mike Tomlin said. “I thought those were the significant plays that kept the game from being blown open and put us in a football game as we got down the stretch.”
Ironically, Brown was involved in both of those plays in question, failing to field a free kick after a Kansas City safety. The Chiefs recovered the loose ball at the Pittsburgh 29-yard line and kicked a field goal.
Then, in the second quarter, Brown stopped running on a slant that turned into an interception at midfield.
But he also made a game-saving play, catching a pass off a deflection in the fourth quarter and turning it into a 51-yard touchdown moments after Kansas City had closed to within 12-10.
A big issue has been the Steelers’ red zone production. The Steelers are converting only 50 percent of their trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line into touchdowns, including one of two against the Chiefs.
“You get down there, sometimes you execute and sometimes you don’t,” said Tomlin. “I think we had two opportunities. We converted one. We’ll keep rolling the ball out. I’m not discouraged by our progress. I thought Sunday was progress.”
A key could be not being so reliant on Brown and Bell, especially in the red zone.
Bell leads all NFL running backs with 27 carries inside the opponents’ 20. Brown has six red zone targets, which ranks 17th in the NFL, and is just one more than Bell.
The Steelers need to find output from somebody other than Bell and Brown to make things work, especially when they get closer to the end zone. That’s where 6-5 wide receiver Martavis Bryant could become a factor. Bryant had 14 touchdown catches in his first 21 games before sitting out all of last season becase of a suspension.
To this point, Bryant has only one touchdown among his 17 catches, none of which have come on his three red zone targets.
“When we get down in the red zone, that’s such a finicky part of the field, (reliant on) details and all the little things really have to be amplified,” said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. “So when you’ve been out of football so long, you have to build up the details and the new plays and nuances that go with red zone football. That just comes with repetition and using him. We have a few plays that are specifically for him in the red zone that we haven’t used yet, for whatever reason. We’ve got some plays we’ll be able to get to.”
Sooner rather than later would be a welcome change, especially for Bryant.
Tomlin brushed off reports that Bryant expressed a desire to be traded, saying he and the wide receiver have spoken often and Bryant has never requested a trade.
With Bell and Brown dominating so much of the offense, it’s only natural that other players want to get more involved.
In this case, it could be better for the team.
“I assume that all of those guys want that,” Tomlin said. “I don’t think it’s earth-shattering or ground-breaking news when people want the ball or they want more playing time or they want clarity in terms of their roles. I think those are natural human conditions. I’m surprised when they don’t want those things.”
Odds and end zones
Tomlin said right tackle Marcus Gilbert continues to get treatment on the hamstring injury he aggravated against the Chiefs and forced him out of the game in the second quarter. Gilbert had missed the previous three games. … Guard Ramon Foster (back) and linebackers Vince Williams (hip) and Tyler Matakevich (shoulder) will be monitored in practice because of their injuries. Tomlin is hopeful they will play against Cincinnati. … Tomlin said he is open to outside linebacker James Harrison having a more involved role. Harrison had been inactive for two weeks before recording a sack late in the fourth quarter against Kansas City.