PITTSBURGH (AP) A quarterback at the top of his game. A wide receiver that’s the most consistent in the NFL. A competitive group of veterans and youngsters behind him fighting for a piece of the action, however small.
Mix those ingredients together – particularly that last part – and the seeds of discord are there.
Stunningly, they’re not. Not even close. Maybe it’s because Ben Roethlisberger has turned the Pittsburgh Steelers into the league’s happiest democracy.
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Big or small. Young or old. Fast or slow.
Roethlisberger doesn’t care.
Get open and he’s going to find you.
And while Antonio Brown – who leads the NFL in catches and yards receiving and is fourth in touchdowns – is on a record-breaking roll, Roethlisberger is doing an admirable job of keeping everyone else involved.
The Steelers (6-3) are one of three teams who have four players with at least 30 receptions and one of two that have six players with two or more receiving touchdowns heading into Sunday’s game against the New York Jets.
”I’m never one who’s going to throw it to somebody intentionally, just to get him a ball,” Roethlisberger said. ”But when you’ve got so many weapons, it’s fun to see everyone kind of have their hands in the pile.”
Roethlisberger isn’t just being politically correct. From Brown to little-used tight ends Matt Spaeth and Michael Palmer, the Steelers offense is functioning like a high-tempo democracy.
”Nobody is getting jealous, nobody is getting upset about not getting reps,” reserve wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said. ”Everybody understands your number could be called at any time, so just stay on top of your game.”
While Brown has run off 25 straight games of at least five receptions for 50 yards, a mark that is the best in league history, the playing time for the guys behind him changes on a regular basis.
One week tight end Heath Miller is an afterthought, the next he’s going over 100 yards receiving for just the third time in his decade-long career. Rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant spent the first six games on the inactive list. Now he has five touchdowns during Pittsburgh’s three-game winning streak.
Palmer is the third-string tight end who is typically brought in around the goal line or in short-yardage situations. He’s only caught one pass all year, but it provided the winning points in a 17-9 victory over Jacksonville last month.
”It’s fun to go out there and know whenever you have a route, you have a chance,” Palmer said. ”You’re not just running a backside route or a clear route to open up other people.”
Even if that’s sometimes the idea. Roethlisberger has thrown 12 touchdowns to six different players over the past two weeks. Some of them have been dazzling catch-and-runs.
Some of them have been deft lobs. Some of them have come with Roethlisberger searching for a second or third or fourth option behind an offensive line that has turned the pocket into a tranquil oasis in a sea of chaos.
For years one of the NFL’s most-hit quarterbacks, Roethlisberger has been sacked just three times in 86 drop-backs while dominating the Colts and Ravens. He’s on pace to be dropped for the fewest times in his career when he’s played a full season despite being on pace for 600 attempts.
”We know that he’s capable of doing that every week, we’ve just got to give him time,” Miller said. ”The receivers are getting open and making plays for him.”
No matter how much or how frequently they’re used. The Steelers signed Heyward-Bey in the offseason hoping the former first-round pick could use his still-scorching speed to become the deep threat they’ve been looking for since Mike Wallace bolted for Miami more than a year ago.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Heyward-Bey made the roster based mostly on his ability to block on special teams, but he’s proven reliable when needed.
Facing third-and-9 from the Pittsburgh 2 nursing an 11-point lead against Houston two weeks ago, Heyward-Bey lined up in the slot then hauled in a dart from Roethlisberger for a 17-yard gain. His third catch of the season helped the Steelers flip the field on their way to a 30-23 victory.
Heyward-Bey is just one of five skill players who have not been on the other end of one of Roethilsberger’s 22 scoring passes. Asked jokingly if he’s ready for his turn to come up and Heyward-Bey’s smile disappeared.
”I don’t care,” he said. ”I think we’re very deep. We’re a special group. We’ve got six guys that can dress every week, I’ve been on teams that dress three receivers. We understand that we’re unique. We’ve got to show it on every Sunday.”
No matter who gets the credit.
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