By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Antonio Brown may be out the door in Pittsburgh, but that doesn't necessarily mean the Steelers have become easy to defend.
Wide receivers surpassed steel as Pittsburgh's No. 1 export a long time ago.
Brown's rocky departure from the Steelers created a void on the roster, but it also created an opportunity. The four-time All-Pro receiver is imploding in Oakland, and the Steelers still have a young group of receivers with big upside and a chance to grab some of Brown's 168 targets in 2018. The potential is inherent because of who drafted them.
Under GM Kevin Colbert, the Steelers selected 21 wide receivers from 2000-18. Eighteen of them have played at least two NFL games and collectively they've produced 382 starts, 2,404 catches, and 210 touchdowns in a Steelers uniform. The list includes Plaxico Burress (2000), Santonio Holmes (2006), Mike Wallace (2009), Brown and Emmanuel Sanders (2010), and Martavis Bryant (2014).
For comparison's sake, the Patriots drafted 16 receivers in the same span and got 213 starts, 1,150 catches, and 84 touchdowns among 11 players. The vast majority of the production came from Julian Edelman, Deion Branch, and David Givens.
Pittsburgh's latest hit is Smith-Schuster, a 2017 second-round pick who caught 111 passes for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns in 2018 as a secondary option. He has potential for similar, if not better production as the Steelers' new No. 1 wideout. It remains to be seen what they get out of 2018 second-rounder James Washington or 2019 third-rounder Diontae Johnson, but their organizational pedigree is unquestioned. It also helps to have free-agent addition Donte Moncrief in the fold and future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throwing the ball.
Fortunately for the Patriots, this matchup is strength vs. strength. They boast a deep, smart, confident cornerback group headlined by First Team All-Pro Stephon Gilmore. They appear equipped to handle any kind of receiving corps. They have size with rookie Joejuan Williams, speed with Jonathan Jones, physicality with Gilmore and second-year pro J.C. Jackson.
The Brown-less Steelers look a lot different, but the challenge remains a big one with Smith-Schuster topping the marquee.
"He’s a big-play receiver. He can pretty much do anything," said Gilmore on Smith-Schuster. "He’s got good feet, he can catch the deep ball, and he’s hard to tackle, so he can do it all."
Jackson could use a cue from his teammate on handling questions about opposing receivers. In a rare moment of candor, Jackson deviated from the Patriots' usually-effusive praise of the other team on Thursday. The Pats aren't usually the ones who deliver unfiltered takes like Jackson's on Smith-Schuster ranking among the league's best wideouts.
"In my opinion, I don’t think so. There’s a lot of good receivers in the NFL," Jackson said, before quickly clarifying. "I mean he's a great receiver, I'm not saying that [he isn't]. He's physical, he's a good route runner and he's got good hands. He can make a lot of plays on the ball."
Some posed the rhetorical cliche "Who is J.C. Jackson?" in reaction to the cornerback's comments. In the haze of the Steelers' 17-10 win over the Patriots last December, they apparently missed that Jackson held Smith-Schuster to four catches on 10 targets for just 40 yards. Jackson will be scrutinized for what he said about Smith-Schuster, but he has evidence to support his growing swagger.
The other receivers, if we're being fair, have varying question marks attached to them. Moncrief remains a freak athlete, but also has unrealized potential that the Steelers need to unlock. Washington started just six games and made 14 catches as a rookie in 2018.
Johnson, only the fourth receiver drafted out of Toledo since 1970, has played precisely zero NFL games. The Steelers' track record with the receivers in the third round is not as strong as others. Markus Wheaton, Dri Archer, and Sammie Coates are among recent picks that never panned out at the position.
But it's always a challenge to take seriously when the Patriots face Roethlisberger and his arsenal, regardless of who's lining up. Roethlisberger has averaged 337 passing yards and two touchdowns in six regular season games against New England this decade. The Steelers passing game has historically been the main reason they're ever even in a game against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. They're still going to roll their three-receiver sets and throw early and often.
Brown is gone, but the threat remains at receiver because, well, they're the Steelers.
"They’ve got good receivers - Washington’s good, Moncrief’s good, they've got [Ryan] Switzer in the slot, and obviously they’ve got one of the best quarterbacks to ever play," said Gilmore. "They’ve got talent everywhere. We’ve got our hands full with them."
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].