Tall task: Replacing Martavis Bryant won't be easy for Steelers

PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger's recent radio comment about quarterback Mason Rudolph and the Pittsburgh Steelers' draft wasn't the most pertinent thing he said about the team.

Not as it pertains to the product on the field, at least.

His description of wide receiver Martavis Bryant -- and what his trade to the Oakland Raiders means -- brings the 2018 offense into focus more than anything else.

"I think he helped all of us -- he helped Antonio [Brown]," Roethlisberger told 93.7 The Fan on May 4. "He controlled safeties and made some big plays for us."

After months of trade speculation that general manager Kevin Colbert kept quieting with not-for-sale signs, draft night came and Bryant was gone as fast as his 40-yard time. Getting a third-round pick for a player with past drug issues who wanted out of town and had one year left on his contract made the move palatable.

But make no mistake: The Steelers can't exactly replace Bryant, who indeed kept safeties honest. They might match his production and put up big numbers once again, but Bryant is too unique to replace. A handful of NFL players at any position possess his Avatar-like abilities.

Brown can claim best-receiver status regardless of who's around him. But Bryant had at least something to do with Brown's average of 1,688 yards in three seasons with him and 1,284 in the one full season without him, in 2016.

Brown's going to get his. Around him, the Steelers passing attack must fill the void by committee.

More JuJu

JuJu Smith-Schuster is well-positioned for at least 100 targets and 1,000 yards. The Steelers are betting big on Smith-Schuster offsetting the loss of Bryant, and the numbers bear that out.

The Steelers' passing game averaged a 134.0 rating when targeting Smith-Schuster last season, according to Pro Football Focus.

Smith-Schuster has shown a flare for the big play and the ability to make tough catches through traffic with physicality. The next step is consistently winning on the outside against elite corners.

Smith-Schuster is working on it, telling ESPN this offseason he's studied every nuance of the offense.

"Being faster, more of a quarterback perspective," he said. "Just being able to play all across the field, inside-outside, even the running-back spots, so I can understand it."

Can the rookie stretch the field?

The Steelers' offense is at its best when tight ends are working the underneath routes, Brown and Smith-Schuster are doing a bit of everything and a deep threat keeps the safeties on edge.

Enter James Washington, who brings a deep-ball pedigree from Oklahoma State. The second-round draft pick has made the "go" ball his personal art form, with Oklahoma State coaches marveling at his lower-body strength and late-in-the-route separation from defensive backs. Averaging almost 21 yards per catch is impressive at any level of football.

It all comes down to who wants it more, said Washington, who will need a deep desire for the ball to overcome his size (5-foot-11) and adequate but not blazing speed (4.54-second 40) at the NFL level.

The good news for Washington: He reminds coach Mike Tomlin of Smith-Schuster. And the Stamford, Texas, native has modeled his own game after a Texas star, Dez Bryant.

"[Smith-Schuster], he’s a guy that, when I watch him, he comes out here on the field and he goes to work -- that’s how I want to be known," Washington said. "That’s how I want to be labeled.

Big Ben elevating the play of others

Roethlisberger remains one of the game's top quarterbacks because he gives the Steelers a chance in every game and he can win with various supporting casts. Many receivers have had success in Pittsburgh, and it's no coincidence they've caught passes from the same player. This might explain why Roethlisberger questioned the Steelers’ drafting of Rudolph with the 76th overall pick after the veteran QB announced his plans to play three to five more years.

Without Bryant, Roethlisberger will be tasked with finding yards for several role players. The Steelers can build off Vance McDonald's 10-catch playoff performance against Jacksonville. Jesse James must be a safety valve over the middle. Free agent Eli Rogers likely will be back when healthy. Darrius Heyward-Bey is a reliable veteran.

And don't be surprised if Roethlisberger utilizes Justin Hunter more. The two showed some chemistry in training camp. He's no Bryant, but he is lanky, fast and an excellent leaper. Roethlisberger can work with that skill set.