Kevin Gorman: Steelers' passing game in better hands this postseason
The last time the Steelers were in the playoffs, Ben Roethlisberger exited with a powerful parting shot.
After the AFC championship game loss at New England, Big Ben wondered if the moment was too big for his teammates.
“We need to make every single play in a game like this, in a moment like this,” Roethlisberger said. “Hopefully, this is a learning game for guys to understand. This isn't promised to anybody. Tomorrow isn't promised. Just to make the playoffs isn't enough.”
Those words should resonate with the Steelers when they host the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday in an AFC divisional playoff at Heinz Field.
When it comes to watershed moments, the Jaguars game was the low point for these Steelers.
Roethlisberger passed for 312 yards but threw five interceptions, including two that were returned for touchdowns. He leaned heavily on Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell by targeting them a combined 29 times, accounting for more than half of his 55 pass attempts.
“They're All-Pros. I think anyone that doesn't target them would be foolish,” Roethlisberger said. “We have a lot of guys that can make plays for us. Hopefully, we can take advantage of that.”
After Sammie Coates and Cobi Hamilton dropped passes for potential big plays and Eli Rogers fumbled against the Patriots in the playoffs, the Steelers' passing game is in better hands.
The Steelers have more playmakers for this playoff run, with the return of Martavis Bryant from suspension, the drafting of JuJu Smith-Schuster and the trade for Vance McDonald.
That's critical, as Brown is questionable after being sent home Friday with an illness.
One of them already proved he lives for big moments.
Bryant has 19 catches for 244 yards and two touchdowns in three career playoff games. He made a circus catch against Cincinnati in 2015, clutching the ball between his legs while flipping through the end zone, and had nine receptions for 154 yards against Denver.
Bryant also acknowledged he has to prove himself again in the playoffs.
“He knows what I brought to the table two years ago, but I also missed a year, so I'm still earning that trust back with him,” Bryant said.
“But, as far as the playoffs, it's not going to be nothing surprising. I've always been the type of player ready for the big stage. I'm not going to shy away from anything. I don't get nervous. I don't tense up. So, it's exciting. I'm going to go ahead and have fun.”
McDonald played in three playoff games in 2014 with the San Francisco 49ers, recording one catch for 13 yards against Seattle. This is the first postseason with the Steelers for McDonald and Smith-Schuster.
The Steelers' receiving corps is deeper and more talented this season.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin refused to draw comparisons to last season but expressed confidence in the receiving corps “based on what I've seen from this group through this process, through this journey.”
Brown and Bell led the Steelers in receptions once again, but Eli Rogers went from third last season (48 for 594 yards) to sixth (18 for 149) in a reduced role this season.
Coates was traded to Cleveland, tight end Ladarius Green was released after failing a physical and Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers didn't make the cut out of training camp.
Todd Haley also is confident in the Steelers receiving corps, while admitting, “We just didn't play our best (last year). It's a new year, new season, a new biggest game of the year for us. Our guys have been through a lot, have played in big games. Even the guys that are new to the league have played in big games for us.”
That's true of Smith-Schuster, who shines in the spotlight. He had seven catches for 193 yards at Detroit, six for 114 against the Patriots and nine for 143 against Cleveland.
The latter two were particularly important. Smith-Schuster showed he can carry the passing game with Brown out.
No doubt Roethlisberger will rely on Brown and Bell, but the Steelers need strong games from their supporting cast against a Jacksonville secondary Haley called “elite.”
The Jaguars, who feature All-Pro cornerbacks in Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, rank first in the NFL in passing yards allowed (169.9 a game) and interceptions (21).
“They're as good a duo as we'll see,” Haley said. “Really, it'll be a great matchup. We have to be at our best.”
Bryant believes the Steelers are up for that challenge.
“They're two great players, but we've got great players on this team, as well,” he said. “Something's gotta give on Sunday. They won the first matchup. It's got to be our get-back. … We know it ain't going to be easy but we're up for a challenge, and we're not going to back down from nobody.”
The Steelers receivers have another moment against the Jaguars, a second chance to prove it's not too big.
Tomorrow isn't promised. Just to make the playoffs isn't enough.