Steelers hurting at wide receiver as Ravens loom
PITTSBURGH (AP) — The previous time Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown were in uniform together for the Steelers at Heinz Field against the Ravens, Roethlisberger threw for 340 yards and six touchdowns in a 43-23 romp midway through the 2014 season.
It’s still Pittsburgh’s only victory in the past seven meetings between the two teams that will meet for the de facto AFC North title game on Christmas night, a rare blowout in a series dominated by taut defensive struggles usually decided by a kicker.
Bell missed Baltimore’s win in the wild-card round later that season with a knee injury. Roethlisberger sat out an overtime setback in 2015 with a knee issue.
Their knees are fine this time around. The issue might be finding some help, particularly for Brown. Pittsburgh’s wide receiver group is hurting.
Sammie Coates is still dealing with two broken fingers on his left hand and was limited in practice on Thursday with a hamstring issue.
Tight end Ladarius Green is likely out after being put in the concussion protocol following a helmet-to-helmet hit in the fourth quarter last Sunday in Cincinnati. Darrius Heyward-Bey is nearing his return from a foot injury, but still hasn’t caught a pass in two months.
Asked if he can line up as a receiver and go deep to take some of the pressure off Brown, Bell laughed and said “we’ll see.”
“I never turn down a go route,” said Bell, who is second on the team with 72 receptions. “If they give me a go route, I’m going to try and run a go route every time they ask me.”
It might be worth a shot.
While the Steelers (9-5) have ripped off five straight wins thanks in large part to an offense that’s become increasingly dependent on Bell’s constantly churning legs, Green’s emergence as a deep threat to complement Brown has certainly helped.
Green is averaging a healthy 16.9 yards per catch since coming off the physically unable to perform list against Dallas last month, but who knows how long he might be out after getting drilled while finishing off a 28-yard reception in the fourth quarter against the Bengals.
The options appear to be dwindling. Eli Rogers is primarily a possession receiver and Cobi Hamilton is a practice squad graduate. Only one of Hamilton’s 13 receptions has gone for more than 21 yards on the season.
Not exactly the kind of production that forces opponents to reconsider having two or three players shadow Brown wherever he may roam. Though Brown’s 96 receptions lead the AFC, his 12.6 yards per catch is his lowest since 2012.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley pointed to the steady play of Jesse James and Xavier Grimble — who filled in capably while Green recovered from offseason ankle surgery and other problems — as proof the Steelers can move the ball without a true downfield complement to Brown.
Maybe, but maybe not.
Pittsburgh’s midseason slump started right after Coates — who had one reception of at least 40 yards in each of the Steelers’ first five games — injured his fingers while catching a pair of touchdowns against the New York Jets.
The team didn’t fully snap out of it until Green had a pair of 30-plus yard receptions against Indianapolis on Thanksgiving.
Coates continued to play through the injury on special teams and caught his first pass in seven weeks against the Bengals, signs he appeared to be heading in the right direction.
“It’s not easy to have those finger issues as a wide receiver,” Roethlisberger said. “You’ve really seen him play well on special teams and start to really do some more on offense. I’ll just keep challenging him to come back and be the best he can be. And help us, offensively.”
Those plans may be put on hold after Coates trudged out of the team’s facility with a noticeable limp and Green was wearing a black sweatsuit after sitting out practice yet again.
No matter, Roethlisberger remains confident with a playoff spot on the line and an archrival coming to town.
“We’ve got other guys that have been here all year doing this stuff,” Roethlisberger said. “So we’ll have to count on them if (Green) is not ready to go.”
NOTES: DE Stephon Tuitt (knee) did not practice for the second straight day. ... CB Justin Gilbert (illness) and S Shamarko Thomas were also out. ... LB Anthony Chickillo (ankle) and DE Ricardo Mathews (ankle) were limited.
For more NFL coverage: AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL