PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers know Antonio Brown is due a signature go-off game soon enough, but his modest output Monday night in Tampa Bay signals growth for Pittsburgh’s offense.
Brown got a modest nine targets, and his total of six catches for 50 yards and a score didn’t seem out of place.
The league’s second-ranked offense is coming into focus with seven core playmakers in the passing game.
"I think it’s maybe me not forcing it into those coverages and forcing him the ball," Roethlisberger said on his weekly radio show Tuesday after the Steelers’ 30-27 win over the Bucs. "In the past, I know I’ve forced him and some good things have come of it, but I’m just trying not to do too much of that because other guys are making plays, so that might be part of the reason the numbers aren’t what they have been in the past."
To be sure, Roethlisberger and Brown comprise arguably the best offensive duo over the past five years, and Brown’s 42 targets on the year ranks second league-wide.
But Brown commanding consistent double teams has opened lanes for JuJu Smith-Schuster to beat No. 2 corners one-on-one.
Smith-Schuster has responded with a three-game star turn. He’s third in the league in yards (356) and fourth in receptions (27).
The supporting roles have crystallized, and though Martavis Bryant is gone, the group is the most well-rounded in years for the Steelers offense. Rookie James Washington is entrenched as the No. 3 receiver, Ryan Switzer has been effective as a quick-hit slot receiver, tight end Vance McDonald posted a career high with 112 yards Monday, tight end Jesse James is a reliable option and running back James Conner is on pace for 80 catches.
Roethlisberger is the catalyst with three straight 300-yard games. But Smith-Schuster is setting the stage for a new dimension for the offense.
"If JuJu keeps this up, they’re not going to be able to keep doubling AB," Brown said.
Brown likes the sound of that. Asked when Smith-Schuster will loosen up passing lanes for him, Brown said, "hopefully soon."
The Steelers just played the league’s two lowest-ranked defenses back to back. Still, putting up 65 points without a Brown passing play of more than 27 yards is an encouraging sign.
Coach Mike Tomlin anticipates more splash from Brown soon.
"People probably spent all summer working to minimize his downfield action. It will smooth out over time, I'm sure," Tomlin said. "AB is AB, he's a significant contributor in any setting ... I'm not concerned about it at all."
Until then, the Steelers have a lineup that can attack varying defensive matchups.
McDonald offers the big-play threat at tight end the defense needs. His speed is tailored for combating fast linebackers -- or trucking safeties, as evidenced by his imposing 75-yard score down the sideline Monday. Durability is a concern with McDonald, who battled a foot injury all camp and injuries last season, but he’s fared well through two games.
James will continue to play. He’s good at finding soft spots in the zone and is a reliable target. James’ durability/consistency coupled with McDonald’s athleticism can form a potent combo.
Expect to see more two tight-end sets but with McDonald as the lead guy.
Washington needed just a few weeks to overtake Justin Hunter for the third receiver spot. The Steelers often bring rookie receivers along slowly, but Washington didn’t want to wait until October. His two leaping catches over the middle show why.
He’s still not an every-down player yet, but expect the Steelers to keep trying the deep ball with Washington down the sideline. That was his specialty at Oklahoma State.
The Steelers aren’t expecting Le’Veon Bell tone-setting from Conner each week, but they have been pleasantly surprised with his pass-catching, which Tomlin calls "very effective" in practice and translating to games.
Through three games, Conner is one of three NFL players with at least 200 rushing yards, 100 receiving yards and three total touchdowns, along with Todd Gurley and Adrian Peterson.
The matchups will change, but Roethlisberger seems to be guiding an equal opportunity offense for the short-term, and it's bringing out his best. Roethlisberger was near-flawless in the first half Monday, completing 21 of 25 passes along with a 75-yard drive in the two-minute drill.
"A lot of it is Ben and his pocket presence," McDonald said. "He can make plays. It’s something that makes him who he is."