The Steelers have two bona fide stars in Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. Brown is the top-ranked fantasy receiver, while Bell has the fourth-most points among running backs in standard-scoring leagues. The team also features a quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger who has been the starter on two Super Bowl Champions. On the surface, those three are mainly responsible for the Steelers scoring 81 points in the last two weeks. Dig a little deeper, though, and you find a rookie wide receiver has played an important role in this offense taking a step forward. That receiver may very well be the piece that pushes this team to the top of the AFC North.
Fact: Martavis Bryant has arrived
Despite the huge individual seasons for Brown and Bell, the Steelers offense wasn’t exactly clicking through the first six weeks of the season. The team averaged a healthy 396.5 yards in its first six games, but just 20.7 points per contest. Heading into Week 7, the Steelers were coming off three consecutive disappointing performances. They lost to the Buccaneers in Week 4, then scored 27 points combined against the Jaguars and Browns. The team trotted out much the same lineup against the Texans two Mondays ago, with one noticeable difference. Bryant, the rookie out of Clemson, was active for the first time all season. He caught two passes for 40 yards and a touchdown. More than the fact that it went for six points, it was the length of the touchdown reception that should have Steelers fans – as well as Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown owners – salivating.
In the first six games of the year, Roethlisberger struggled on deep passes, connecting on 13 of his 30 pass attempts that traveled at least 20 yards in the air for a total of 367 yards and three touchdowns. He has put up about two-thirds of those raw numbers in his last two games, going 7-for-15 with 228 yards and two scores on deep passes in wins over the Texans and Colts. And it all started with the 35-yard touchdown he threw to Bryant two weeks ago.
The Steelers have the ball with 1:36 left in the first half trailing 13-3. They come out in a pistol formation with Brown by himself on the left side of the formation. Bryant is split out wide to the right, with Lance Moore in the slot and Heath Miller standing up, but tight to the right tackle. Here’s what the formation looks like at the snap.
Houston brings seven rushers on a blitz, and is in man across the board with a single high safety who is, unsurprisingly, shading to Brown’s side of the field. That gives the speedster Bryant – he ran a 4.42 40-yard dash at the combine – one-on-one coverage with Andre Hal. This is not a good look for Hal.
Bryant comes off the line with Hal in soft coverage, but it’s clear this play is designed to go deep. He gives a head fake to the middle before breaking outside, but he essentially runs right past Hal, showing off his speed. Here’s what it looks like as Roethlisberger steps up to throw. Bryant and Hal are on the top of the screenshot, right at the 20-yard-line.
Here’s the look just a second or two later, just after Roethlisberger released the ball.
That is pure speed from Bryant, and an element missing from this offense until he played 34 percent of the team’s snaps in the win over Houston. Bryant’s greatest skill as a receiver is in taking the top off a defense. Remember, this is a guy who played alongside Sammy Watkins in college. While Watkins hogged the spotlight, Bryant caught 42 passes for 828 yards and seven touchdowns last season, including a long catch of 76 yards. There’s no doubt that he can stretch the field vertically, giving Brown, Bell, Markus Wheaton and Heath Miller more room to work underneath. He’s not so bad with the more technical aspects of receiving either. For proof, look where he is when he catches this pass from Roethlisberger.
Bryant played an even bigger part in Sunday’s win over the Colts and Roethlisberger’s career day. He was on the field for 39.3 percent of the team’s snaps, catching five passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns. His long reception on this day was 52 yards. Four plays later, Roethlisberger and Brown hooked up on an 8-yard touchdown pass. Let’s check out Bryant’s big play that set up that score.
The Steelers are in a shotgun formation on 2nd-and-10 from their own 27-yard line. Bryant and Darrius Heyward-Bey are stacked on the left side of the formation, with Brown on the right side. Here’s what it looks like before the snap.
Thanks to the stack, Bryant is able to get a free release off the line. From there, his legs do all the work. He burns backup cornerback Darius Butler, filling in for the injured Vontae Davis, and hauls in a beautiful pass from Roethlisberger. A torching, in three acts.
Pittsburgh’s offense is really coming together halfway through the season, and Bryant’s presence has a lot to do with it. The one thing this passing game lacked was a deep threat who could put pressure on the secondary every single play. Bryant has proven that he is just such a player in the last two games. He should be owned in deeper leagues, but his biggest fantasy impact may be on Roethlisberger, Brown and Bell. As this offense gets even better, so, too, should its three best players.
Fiction: Ben Tate is an RB2 for the rest of the season
The Browns lost a whole lot when Alex Mack went down for the year with a broken leg in the Week 6 win over the Steelers. According to Pro Football Focus, Mack has been the No. 4 overall center and seventh-best run blocker at the position this year. Pro Football Focus’ numbers are cumulative, too, so Mack has been losing ground to his counterparts for the last two weeks. The impact of Mack’s injury has been evident in Cleveland’s recent games against the lowly Jaguars and Raiders. As a team, the Browns ran for 108 yards on 55 carries in those two contests. Tate ran 31 times for 62 yards the last two weeks, and while he salvaged his Week 8 game with a short touchdown, his fantasy value took a significant hit.
Through the first six weeks of the season, the Browns averaged 4.1 yards per carry when running through either A gap, which are the gaps to the center’s immediate right and left. In the two games without Mack, they’ve averaged 1.3 yards per carry on such runs, totaling 21 yards on 16 totes. Quite simply, there hasn’t been any push from the middle of the Cleveland line. Let’s take a look at Cleveland’s struggles to run the ball without Mack on the field.
The Raiders entered this game allowing the second-most fantasy points per game to running backs, so this should have been a great matchup for Tate. This first play we’ll examine is indicative of what he had to deal with all afternoon. It’s 1st-and-10 from the Oakland 19-yard-line. The Browns set up in a power run formation, with three tight ends on the line and just one receiver split out wide. Here’s what that looks like at the snap.
Tate takes a pitch on a play that is designed to go between the center and right guard. When he has no room there, he bounces to his left. By time he gets there, he’s facing a swarm of Raiders.
Walter Payton wouldn’t have been able to do more than lose a yard on that play. Someone like Tate, talented though he is, won’t make more out of it either. Unfortunately, this is his new reality with Mack on the shelf. The Browns face a pair of soft run defenses in their next two games in Tampa Bay and Cincinnati, but Oakland, too, was poor against the run before playing the Browns in Week 8. Tate cedes carries and third-down snaps to Isaiah Crowell, who is a better receiver and pure athlete. That, combined with Mack’s absence, makes Tate a dicey RB2 for the rest of the season. More likely, he’s a flex play and RB3 who will not crack the top 25 at the position for Weeks 9 through 17.