By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Chuck Noll once said of a player that he has problems, and they are many.
The same could be said about the current Steelers team. The running game is non-existent, as they await the first regular-season snap to be taken by injured second-round pick Le’Veon Bell (right mid-foot sprain). All-Pro tight end Heath Miller, last year’s leading receiver, has not yet played while coming back from right knee surgery nearly nine months ago.
And now, after starting 0-2 for the first time since 2002, the problems have spilled onto the sideline from the field. It was reported Tuesday that wideout Antonio Brown confronted offensive coordinator Todd Haley to complain that not enough pass plays were called for him at Cincinnati. Brown said Wednesday that he wasn’t unhappy about his situation.
“Over the course of this business, you’ve got to remain positive, because any negative energy could defuse your play,” Brown said. “Would I have liked more (targets)? Absolutely.
“But, sometimes, you’ve got to let the game come to you and let things play out. … I asked Todd what he was seeing and tried to go with that, to find out what he was thinking, so we could get some things going for our team. (And) it’s a little bit frustrating when you’re 0-2. (But) you’ve got to stay positive. There’s a lot more football to play, and you have to be ready for that.”
Brown added that he spoke with Haley privately Wednesday and “talked about things that we could do better as a whole and get on the right page so we can start winning.”
According to the official stats from the game, Brown was targeted three times in the first half and caught two passes for 35 yards. He finished with nine throws his way and a team-high six catches for 57 yards with a long one for 18. Brown also had a 33-yard reception early in the third quarter that was called back due to an incorrect tripping call on offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert.
Emmanuel Sanders caught three of the four passes thrown to him in the first half for 71 yards and finished with five receptions for 78 yards. Sanders was targeted a team-high 10 passes in the game. Jerricho Cotchery, the No. 3 receiver, was targeted most often in the first half. There were five passes to him in the first half, but none were caught. He tallied three catches for 59 yards, all in the second half after being targeted four more times.
Sanders also was targeted more often than Brown in the opener against Tennessee, as 12 passes were thrown his way. He caught seven for 57 yards. Brown had five catches among the seven targets for 71 yards, while Cotchery had four catches for 34 yards after being targeted seven times. So, after two games, Sanders has been targeted a team-high 22 times, while Brown and Cotchery have been thrown to 16 times each.
Sanders tops the Steelers with 12 catches for 135 yards, while Brown is second with 11 catches for 128 yards. And Cotchery has seven catches for 93 yards and one touchdown through two games.
“I haven’t even talked with Antonio today, because we’ve had a bunch of individual meetings,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said Wednesday before practice. “So, I don’t even know what exactly happened or if there was an issue. But I would assume it was just frustration and not a bigger problem than that. … One throw to Antonio, he said he couldn’t pick it up. But I don’t know what we can do. They don’t have the old light-up Nerf ball anymore.”
Roethlisberger noted that Cotchery also told him that he lost a ball in the lights. It was a third-and-eight situation during the Steelers opening possession in the third quarter. A catch certainly would have been a first down for the Steelers.
“Once I turned around, I had no clue where the ball was,” Cotchery said. “So, there’s just adjustments that you have to make in stadiums like that, and you have to do the best you can to locate the ball. It happened to me, and it also happened to Antonio as well. It happened on the same sideline.
“I had it happen in Kansas City a couple years back, 2011, and it always happens in New Orleans in that dome. They have some light issues, but you just have to work through it and try to locate the ball the best that you can. You just have to stay locked in.
“We’re kind of like running backs, in a sense, because we can get into grooves as well,” Cotchery added. “When guys touch the ball, you feel like you’re a part of it, but when it’s not happening you need to contribute in another way to get into the flow of the game. And that’s the best way that I can describe it.”
Cotchery would not admit that there was a communication problem between the wideouts and Roethlisberger.
“We were just a little off here and there,” Cotchery noted. “From my part of it, I had a drop early on and lost one in the lights. So, there’s two simple ones right there that were unfortunate, but they would have made a difference for the offense. Negative plays kill momentum, so that’s what we had too many of.
“I guess it could have looked that way, like we’re not on the same page, but it comes down to a couple simple plays being made here and there. Negative plays can really kill momentum, and that was the issue. It’s nothing more than that in my estimation. But we each had a couple of them, and that adds up.”
Roethlisberger said that receivers have lobbied him to throw them the ball ever since he arrived in 2004.
“When we get together, all us quarterbacks talk about different receivers lobbying for balls,” Roethlisberger said.
“They all do it. Some do it with gifts, and some do it by just talking with you. So, I think they do it all over the league since the beginning. (And) I’ve got a lot of nice gifts from guys.”
Roethlisberger was asked if he lobbied Haley for using the no-huddle.
“I go with whatever our coordinator calls, and I’m going to try to run that to the best of my ability,” Roethlisberger said. “I also go with what I see on the field, and I try to let him know what I think will work under those circumstances. Then, I put it in his court to call it or not call it.
“It’s early. We all know that it’s all about when you get hot as a team in the season. It’s a little early to get hot for a playoff run, but just two games in and we have a big one at home Sunday night. So, if we can win at home against a very good team, who knows what that would translate into.”
What about the no-huddle?
“We need to figure out what’s best for this offense,” Roethlisberger said. “What’s our best tempo? There’s time to go fast and go no-huddle, and there’s times to slow it down and get big personnel in the game. So, we just have to know when and where those situations go best.
“(And) when I’m calling plays in no-huddle, the entire playbook is open to me. You run into problems when you start to substitute, and then you’re limited in your no-huddle play-calling.”
If the Steelers go to a four-wide set, rookie Markus Wheaton could get more snaps. He hasn’t gotten much so far, and he hasn’t lobbied Roethlisberger for the ball, either.
“I’m trying to develop a relationship with him on and off the field, because I think it’s important,” Roethlisberger said. “I think he’s a guy we can use as a weapon. He’s a smart guy who really doesn’t make mistakes. … It’s more about depth here and there, but I think he’s more than ready to get in and doing some stuff for us.”