Steelers’ receiver Antonio Brown had only one reception for nine yards in the first half of a pivotal Week-6 matchup against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday.
Perhaps more amazing than Brown’s lack of production was the fact that he had pretty much been a forgotten commodity during the first 30 minutes of action; tight end Vance McDonald, receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner were the offensive cogs working in unison to help Pittsburgh achieve a 14-14 tie at halftime.
Conner scored two touchdowns in the first half — his second one, coming late in the second quarter, was set up by spectacular individual efforts by McDonald and Smith-Schuster. McDonald’s contribution came on the first play of the 75-yard touchdown drive, when he took a short pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and then continued his ongoing, Mark Bavaro impression by plowing through several Bengals’ defenders—including linebacker Vontaze Burfict—on the way to a 26-yard gain into Cincinnati territory. Six plays later, Roethlisberger found Smith-Schuster down the right sideline, and the receiver out-fought cornerback Darqueze Dennard for an amazing 29-yard reception that set-up Conner’s one-yard dive to make it 14-7.
Brown remained pretty much a secondary character for the majority of Sunday’s action and would ultimately end the day with fewer targets than Smith-Schuster, McDonald, Conner and even tight end Jesse James.
At several points during the game, you could see Brown sitting on the sidelines, looking less than thrilled.
As Pittsburgh began its penultimate drive with 9:19 remaining in the fourth quarter and clinging to a 17-14 lead, No. 84 had “upped” his production on the day to three receptions for a mere 22 yards.
At this point, not only did the Steelers’ lead — and season — seem shaky, but you could only assume Brown, who has been in the news lately for both his on-the-field demeanor and his off-the-field behavior, was about to explode — and not in the good way.
Brown did explode.
However, instead of taking his frustrations out on Gatorade coolers, reporters or, allegedly, his Miami apartment, he took them out on the Bengals’ secondary.
Back to that second-to-last drive.
Facing a 2nd-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 38-yd. line, Roethlisberger connected with Brown on a short pass, and the receiver quickly worked his way 48 yards downfield to the Bengals’ 14. With 5:46 regaining in the final period, the Steelers were a mere touchdown away from icing the game, and they could thank their always-clutch, superstar receiver for saving the season.
Only problem was, Pittsburgh was able to pick up only an additional eight yards on the drive and had to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal and a 20-14 lead with 3:32 remaining in the game.
Speaking of shaky, a six-point lead always feels that way in the NFL. And considering the Bengals spent the first five weeks making a habit out of coming back from late deficits on the way to a 4-1 record, you got a sense that the Steelers were in trouble.
Running back Joe Mixon capped off a 75-yard drive with a four-yard touchdown to give Cincinnati a 21-20 lead with only 1:18 remaining.
Sure, that seemed like more than enough time to get into reasonable field goal range for Boswell. But given the way he’s struggled in 2018, the thought of such an important game coming down to his right foot was absolutely frightening.
But when Roethlisberger connected with Smith-Schuster for a 23-yard gain down to the Cincinnati 31-yd. line with only 15 seconds left, it seemed Pittsburgh’s fortunes would come down to a 40-plus-yard field goal attempt by a kicker who had already missed three extra points this season.
The Steelers burned their first timeout, which meant they still had two left and the whole field to work with, assuming that getting Boswell just a little closer was their goal.
And maybe it was, when Roethlisberger found Brown on a quick little slant-pass. Only problem for Cincinnati? Brown had other ideas, as he outran the Bengals’ entire secondary on the way to a 31-yard, go-ahead touchdown with only 10 seconds remaining.
The Steelers’ connected on the two-point try and ultimately walked away with a very important 28-21 victory.
As for Brown, he finished the day with five catches for 105 yards. Sadly for the Bengals, Brown’s final two receptions that netted 79 yards, a field goal and the game-winning touchdown, proved to be a couple of huge sledgehammer blows right into the heart of their previously healthy AFC North lead over Pittsburgh.
The Bengals had a chance to bury the Steelers on Sunday. Fortunately, Antonio Brown escaped from Cincinnati’s clutches just in the nick of time to save the day.