Steelers confident they can succeed if Brown can't play vs. Broncos

| Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, 10:09 p.m.

Playing a game — let alone a divisional-round playoff game —– without Antonio Brown isn't a pleasant thought.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has admitted as much.

However, that reality got a little closer Wednesday when Brown did not practice when the Steelers returned to the field in preparation for Sunday's playoff game against the Denver Broncos. This indicates he remains in the NFL's concussion protocol after suffering a hit to the head last week.

Brown hasn't missed a practice, whether it was during the offseason, in training camp or the regular season, since suffering a sprained ankle against the New York Giants in 2012 that forced him to miss three games.

If things don't perk up for Brown over the next two days, his streak of 36 consecutive games played will end.

“Everybody knows that might be a harsh reality and something we might have to deal with it,” guard Ramon Foster said.

Brown had 136 receptions during the regular season. Receivers Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant and Darrius Heyward-Bey had 115 combined. Rookie Sammie Coates, who has one career reception and has been inactive for the past seven games, also would likely see playing time.

“Can they overcome it? Sure they can,” former Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. “The Pittsburgh Steelers have the pedigree of understanding what it takes to win games. Is it going to be a big obstacle? Yes, it is.”

The question is how can the Steelers deal with the loss of a player who has been so important to the offense's success?

The superlatives this year, and over the past three, are almost too many to list:

• Franchise-record 136 receptions and 1,834 yards this year.

• Single-game team records for catches (17) and yards (284).

• NFL record for receptions in a three-year span (375).

Even though the numbers are seemingly unmatchable and irreplaceable, the Steelers have had success when Brown hasn't put up typical numbers.

Brown's worst two games were ones the Steelers won, and both came without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose availability is up in the air because of a shoulder injury.

On Oct. 12 against the Chargers with Mike Vick at quarterback, Brown caught three passes for 45 yards in a 24-20 win. A week later and with Landry Jones under center, Brown caught three for 24 yards in a 25-13 win.

“You can never just plug someone in for AB, because AB is pretty special,” Roethlisberger said. “But we have guys who have stepped up all year and if AB can't go, then we have faith and confidence that the next guy will step up and be the best player they can be.”

But don't forget Brown has had some monster games this year, including one against the Broncos a month ago when he caught 16 passes for 189 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a come-from-behind victory.

Also, it's hard to ignore that in the games Brown didn't put up big numbers, he still drew extra coverage.

“We voted him our team MVP for a reason,” tight end Heath Miller said. “He is productive every week for us. He makes plays every week for us. We would prefer him to be in the lineup, for sure. We certainly have faith in the other guys in the locker room. We see everyone work on a daily basis. If he isn't able to go, it's not like we aren't going to make the trip.”

But the Steelers will have to make adjustments, which could be significant.

Wheaton would take over at least a part of Brown's role with Heyward-Bey and Bryant filling in behind him. Each has had big games.

Wheaton gained 201 yards in Seattle, and Bryant has had five 100-yard games and two multi-touchdown games in his short career.

“We have athletes who can fill in,” Wheaton said. “But obviously, AB is AB.”

Replacing Brown would be a monumental task, especially going up against the “No Fly Zone” secondary of the Broncos led by Aqib Talib and Chris Harris.

“If it happens, everybody is going to have to step up just like when we lost (Maurkice) Pouncey, just like when we lost anybody else,” Heyward-Bey said. “Everybody is just going to have to step up. My mentality is that I really don't care if ... AB plays, we are going in there to win the game. If you don't think you are capable of doing it, then why show up?”

Mark Kaboly is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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