Tim Benz: Steelers explain plan to deploy WRs without Antonio Brown | TribLIVE.com
Tim Benz, Columnist

Tim Benz: Steelers explain plan to deploy WRs without Antonio Brown

Tim Benz
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster beats the Chiefs’ kendall Fuller for a second-quarter touchdown Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018 at Heinz Field. Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster beats the Chiefs’ kendall Fuller for a second-quarter touchdown Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018 at Heinz Field.
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers running back James Conner (left) celebrates his first NFL touchdown with JuJu Smith-Schuster during the second quarter against the Browns on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018, at First Energy Stadium in Cleveland.

The comment from Ben Roethlisberger resonated.

Clearly, JuJu Smith-Schuster was banged up during the season finale. That’s part of the reason why the Steelers’ passing offense was so lackluster en route to an ugly 16-13 victory over a last-place Bengals team.

An even bigger reason, though, was the absence of Antonio Brown. The All-Pro wide receiver was benched because he missed practice during the week.

And with his status uncertain throughout the lead-up to an important season-ender against Cincinnati, game-planning was compromised.

Not strictly from the standpoint of missing his talent. But also the fundamental issue of the quarterback not knowing where everyone was pre-snap.

“Typically, A.B. is the ‘X’ receiver,” Roethlisberger said after that game. “No matter what you call, A.B. is always at X. Anyone else can come in. But A.B. always has his position. Tonight we had four or five guys play ‘X.’ ”

Now, with Brown gone for good, the Steelers are saying that approach will change in 2019. JuJu Smith-Schuster won’t be deployed in that manner as he gets promoted to the role of No. 1 wide receiver.

“No, that’s definitely not for me,” Smith-Schuster said during minicamp. “I’m the guy that plays everywhere around. Inside, outside, even playing tight end this year when we go five wide. We’ve got guys who can play everywhere. Not just one position. We are centering off of one person.”

Even though Smith-Schuster clearly is the best remaining pass-catcher on the team, he will not get hammered into that split end role on the line of scrimmage that Brown held from the “X” position.

Brown was good enough that — even if defenses knew where he was going to line up and what route he was about to run — he couldn’t be stopped.

The Steelers will keep the opposition guessing more in 2019.

“We need to spread it out,” Smith-Schuster said. “Those catches, those yards, need to be made up with wide receivers, running backs, tight ends. Everybody. It’s not just one person.”

Observers of the team are doing some guess work, too. Namely:

• Can Smith-Schuster match his productivity in recent years with defenses gearing up to take him away first now that they don’t have to account for Brown?

And …

• Who will step up and become a legitimate second threat to JuJu, as JuJu had been to A.B.?

If James Washington makes the leap head coach Mike Tomlin normally asks of second-year players, it should be him. After all, he was a highly decorated college player with a second-round draft grade and now has a year of experience under his belt.

He has also returned to the South Side with a sleeker body. Washington says he dropped 15 pounds to gain speed and separation from professional defensive backs.

“I feel a lot lighter,” Washington said. “I feel like I can stride out a little better. I feel a lot quicker off the jump.”

Along with Washington’s assumed improvement, the Steelers spent a third-round pick on a receiver, Diontae Johnson from Toledo. Free-agent signee Donte Moncrief has been impressive in offseason practices. And there’s the eternal hope that both Vance McDonald and Eli Rogers will stay healthy and that Ryan Switzer will produce more in his second year in Pittsburgh.

Plus, James Conner and Jaylen Samuels could contribute out of the backfield more this year, too, after both running backs elevated their games a year ago.

You know, strength in numbers n’at. Right?

“Everybody is going to be able to help,” Moncrief said. “Everybody in the room is ready to play. Everybody knows that JuJu is going to get a lot of attention. We have to help him out and take that double team away and be men. Everybody needs to be covered, and not just one person.”

So, am I really saying it’ll take eight guys to replace Antonio Brown?

No.

I’m saying it’ll take nine if you count Smith-Schuster perhaps needing to do more, as well.

Yes. Brown was that good. Midnight treadmill rants and bleached mustaches occasionally make you forget that. So whether it’s how the Steelers line up or who lines up for them, the challenge is clear.

No single player on the roster is capable of absorbing Brown’s production. And asking a small army to do it may be confusing at times to figure out.

But at least early in the season, the Steelers may have the element of surprise going for them. That’s a factor Brown could never exploit.

Unless he used it against his own team when they were left to guess if he would show up on time for practices or games.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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