Three postseasons later, we have our answer: this is what happens when Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are all healthy when the playoffs roll around.
Two seasons ago, Bell was injured in the season finale by a hit from former Bengals safety Leon Hall that resulted in a knee injury that was, it turned out, merely an omen of things to come.
Last season, Bell’s knee was nearly demolished by Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict in week eight. That injury ended Bell’s season. Burfict would also knock Brown out — literally — with a brutal helmet-to-helmet hit in the first round of the playoffs, leaving Roethlisberger short both of his favorite targets in a narrow loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.
This year, though, in the first postseason game the three played together, it was everything we could have imagined, and then some.
Roethlisberger was a modest 13 of 18 with two touchdowns and two interceptions — one hit Brown in the hands and bounced into the waiting arms of a defender, and the other was a late-game heave to avoid a sack on a play when Roethlisberger probably shouldn’t have even been in pads anymore. At the time, the Steelers already had the game all but sealed up.
Brown’s numbers were pretty spectacular, with five catches for 124 yards and two touchdowns — the shorter of the two covering 50 yards. Both came in the first quarter.
But, as has been the case for almost half the season now, Bell was the star of the show. Thirty-one touches for 174 yards, 167 of which came on the ground on 29 carries. More than half of Bell’s runs covered at least eight yards. The second of his two touchdowns looked like some choreographed dance in which no one was supposed to touch him, and everyone executed their parts perfectly. He ran in from eight yards out, and the only thing that touched him was the ball.
Yes, the Steelers were facing the 30th-ranked run defense. Why Pittsburgh only ran Bell 10 times against them in the regular-season loss to the Dolphins, we’ll never know. But he more than made up for it Sunday, when winning meant going on to the divisional round, and losing meant the team would begin preparing for the 2017 NFL Draft.
We’ve long known that this is a potent offense when all three of the “Killer Bs” are healthy, and it showed in the team’s first three drives, each of which ended in a touchdown. By the time 17 minutes and 21 seconds had ticked off the game clock, the Steelers had scored 20 points. Bell had run for 99 yards and Brown had 119 yards receiving. The only thing missing was a clear No. 2 receiver choice for Roethlisberger. He completed passes to seven receivers, but none had more than two catches, including Bell, who was second on the team in receptions during the regular season.
The plan all along was clearly to feed it to Bell and let him do the work, and he did just that. Chances are, that plan will be wildly different next week. But the team may also get tight end Ladarius Green back by then, as well. And the emergence of rookie Demarcus Ayers, as well as the re-emergence of Eli Rogers, should make things difficult for the Chiefs.
But, let’s not look ahead to next week just yet. Just for a day, let’s all just enjoy what we’ve waited three postseasons to see.
Finally, the gang’s all here.