Lifelong Steelers fans have grown accustomed to a great deal of stability at the receiver positions from year to year. Whether you’re talking about the storied Swann-Stallworth tandem that played a central role in four league championships or the Hines Ward-Heath Miller combo (with celebrated sidekicks such as Emmanuel Sanders, Santonio Holmes and Mike Wallace), we’ve always pretty much known who would be in the starting lineup.
But as things stand today, the situation at receiver positions is a lot more unsettled than it’s been in the past. Probably the most obvious example is that three players — Vance McDonald, Jesse James and Xavier Grimble currently are sharing snaps at Tight End. But the musical chairs don’t stop there. While Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster are firmly entrenched as the starting tandem, the presence of Justin Hunter and Ryan Switzer, plus the availability of the raw-but-talented James Washington, makes that situation somewhat of a mixed bag as well.
It’s difficult to understand exactly what the Steelers’ coaching staff is trying to accomplish by continuing to platoon receivers at mid-season, rather than sticking with their best players at each position and thereby enabling Big Ben to develop greater chemistry with them — perhaps even the same kind of sixth sense he’s developed with No. 84. In watching the Steelers’ offense during the first half of the 2018 regular season, there still appears to be considerable unfamiliarity between No. 7 and those receivers who play mainly supporting roles in the offense. And in a game where precision timing and consistency are crucial factors, it’s reasonable to suspect that having too many receivers in the mix might not be the best recipe for a team whose ultimate goal is another Super Bowl berth.
We might suspect, given the injury issues he’s had in the past, that the Steelers don’t want to press their luck by giving McDonald more snaps at tight end. On the other hand, it’s pretty obvious McDonald is the most potent weapon in Pittsburgh’s current triumvirate. He certainly looks like the guy who ought to be filling the same role that Heath Miller did for so many seasons.
With rookie James Washington becoming less visible in the Steelers’ offense recently, it’s possible he’ll be added into the mix more often as the second half of the season plays out. When that happens, it will add yet another less-familiar element to the offense. At any rate, it seems the Steelers are still searching for the same kind of spark-plug player at the No. 3 receiver position that James Conner has become this season at running back.
To the extent that the Steelers’ offense has sputtered at various times this season, it appears to do so when opposing defenses have done a good job covering Brown and Smith-Schuster. Because the No. 3 receiver position still isn’t solidified on the Black-and-gold, this enables teams with strong secondaries to force Ben and Company to play out of character, and the results usually aren’t very good.
Eli Rogers had been filling that role in the past but, so far, the Steelers haven’t found a replacement capable of making a comparable or better impact. Of course, if McDonald blossoms into the kind of durable performer that Heath Miller was for so many years in Pittsburgh, he could become that third ace the team needs in its receiver corps. Likewise, if James Conner continues on the pace he’s set so far in 2018, that also might compensate for the team failing to settle on any particular No. 3 wide receiver.
As strong as the Steelers’ offense might be, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that they still need to add one more reliable piece to their receiver corps — a player who can provide the same kind of punch that young players like Conner and Smith-Schuster have brought to the team. On Sunday in Baltimore, we’ll have another opportunity to see the Steelers matching up against a team with a solid secondary. For Pittsburgh to prevail and do so convincingly will require the emergence of one more offensive weapon. Otherwise, we’re probably looking at yet another typical Steelers-Ravens slugfest with the outcome still unclear in the final quarter.