Minnesota Vikings cornerback Trae Waynes (26) receives a pass interference penalty after wrapping his hands around Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant (10) in the second quarter of the Steelers home opener at Heinz Field on September 17, 2017 in Pittsburgh. File photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI | License Photo
PITTSBURGH -- Another week and another potential distraction for the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose 2017 season might as well be titled: "As the Steelers turn."
Every week has soap opera-like storylines with the latest star character being wide receiver Martavis Bryant.
A report surfaced late Sunday after the Steelers' 19-13 victory in Kansas City that Bryant had requested a trade. The NFL Network was the first to report the trade request and other news outlets quickly confirmed the report.
But Bryant, speaking Monday afternoon at the Steelers' practice facility, said it's not true.
"No, I'm good, man," Bryant said. "Good to go. I'm going to play ball. Finish strong and move on forward."
Bryant is upset that rookie second-round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster has apparently passed him by in the receiver rotation. Through six games, Smith-Schuster has more snaps than Bryant (296-285) though Bryant has provided more production.
Bryant has 17 receptions for 231 yards and one touchdown while Smith-Schuster has 15 receptions for 192 yards and two touchdowns.
"It is what it is," said Bryant, when asked if he has had to adjust to his role this season. "I'm not complaining. I know my potential and what I can do. The little bit I get, whatever I get, I just have to make the best of it. Everything else isn't in my control."
Last week, running back Le'Veon Bell complained about his touches after the Steelers lost to the Jaguars. Two weeks ago, it was Antonio Brown who threw a sideline temper tantrum after Ben Roethlisberger failed to throw him the ball.
It seems like it's something new every week with this team. Before a game in Chicago last month, the Steelers were embroiled in controversy after former Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva was the only member of the team to leave the locker room for the national anthem in Chicago. Players admitted the controversy was a distraction and affected their play during an overtime loss to the Bears.
You can call the Steelers Team Turmoil - it's certainly true - but they are alone in first place atop the AFC North and in contention for a top seed in the AFC playoffs. They are 4-2 entering Sunday's home game against the Bengals. They haven't let the distractions sabotage their season, but it does make one wonder where they'd be in the standings if they were simply able to concentrate on football.
James Harrison is a former NFL defensive player of the year, but at 39 his role with the Steelers this season has been diminished. Before Sunday, he played just seven snaps in the first five games and had been inactive the previous two weeks against the Ravens and Jaguars.
But with the Steelers facing Kansas City, Steelers coaches decided to give Harrison a bigger role, and he responded with a signature performance. He delivered a sack on third down that forced a fourth-and-18 and effectively ended the game as the Chiefs were trying for the late winning score.
Harrison has had tackle Eric Fisher's number over the years. He had a sack in the AFC playoff game in January and also forced the holding penalty that nullified the tying two-point conversion. He also recorded 1.5 sacks against Fisher in s 2015 regular-season game against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.
"I had a plan before I went there, what I was going to do," Harrison said. "It happened to work. I'm 39 years old, and I'm still playing a young man's game. I'm extremely blessed and highly favored. This is all God's doing. I'm just sitting back and riding the bus."
Harrison admitted the season has been a struggle for him and said he'd like to play more. Whether that happens remains to be seen.
The Steelers are starting rookie first-round pick T.J. Watt in front of Harrison and don't want to stunt his growth.
"It's a good feeling anytime I go out there and play," Harrison said. "That's what I like to do. I like to compete. Anytime I'm on the sidelines of course I'm not happy about it. I want to go out there and compete. I'm not still playing this game because I want to stand on the sideline."
Wide receiver Antonio Brown provided the winning points for the Steelers on Sunday when he reeled in a 51-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter. Brown had eight catches for 155 yards, but if the Steelers had lost the game he might have been viewed as the goat. If the ball didn't take a fortuitous bounce into his hands on the 51-yard touchdown -- after Kansas City cornerback Phillip Gaines bobbled a sure interception -- the spotlight would have been on Brown for making two mistakes early in the game.
The first came early in the first quarter after the Steelers took a 2-0 lead after a Chiefs safety. Brown misplayed a free kick and the Chiefs recovered. The play set up the Chiefs' first points of the game, a field goal that gave them a temporary 3-2 lead.
"I was coming up full speed on it," Brown said. "The ball took a bounce, went in the other direction. We have to find a way to get the ball in that situation. We have to recover the ball and get us another possession in the game. We're lucky it didn't (affect) the outcome of the game. We have a lot of plays we can get better from."
The other mishap came early in the second quarter on a Ben Roethlisberger interception. Brown stopped his route and cornerback Marcus Peters made an easy pick, which again set the Chiefs up with prime field position. The defense bailed Brown after that miscue by forcing a punt.
"In that situation, I have to get better," Brown said. "I can't leave Ben out to dry. I have to keep coming."
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
LG Ramon Foster said the back injury that prevented him from playing against the Chiefs had been lingering for a few weeks.
RT Marcus Gilbert left the Chiefs game with a hamstring injury, the same one that prevented him from playing for the three previous games. There was no update on his status Monday.
WR Antonio Brown needed only 107 games to reach 9,000 receiving yards, the fewest games in franchise history to reach that milestone. The previous mark was 159 games by Hines Ward.
RB Le'Veon Bell recorded at least 150 yards from scrimmage for the 13th time in his career, breaking a tie with Franco Harris for the most such games in franchise history.
LB Vince Williams had the first multi-sack game of his career. He had two sacks against the Chiefs and boosted his season total to four.
QB Ben Roethlisberger improved to 6-1 as a starter against the Chiefs, including a 2-1 record at Arrowhead Stadium.
REPORT CARD VS. CHIEFS
--PASSING OFFENSE: B-minus - Ben Roethlisberger had that special connection once again with Antonio Brown, but he still can't seem to find a consistent rapport with any of his other receivers. Brown caught eight passes for 155 yards and a touchdown, but no other receiver had more than 35 receiving yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster had three catches for 32 yards, Le'Veon Bell three catches for 12 yards and Martavis Bryant two catches for 27 yards. The Steelers aren't scoring a lot of points and they need Bryant to become that big-play threat that he's been in previous seasons. One positive for the passing game: tight end Vance McDonald recorded his first reception of the season, a 26-yard gain. The Steelers traded for McDonald before the season in hopes he'd add another dimension to the downfield passing game.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: A - Le'Veon Bell rushed for a season-high 179 yards on 32 carries against the Chiefs, a team he loves to play against. In his past three games against the Chiefs, he has rushed for 144, 170 and 179 yards. The first two came in 2016 - one in the regular season and the other in the playoffs. Bell complained about his touches the day the Steelers lost to the Jaguars last week. He had just 15 carries for 47 yards in that game. The Chiefs could not stop the counter play. Guard David DeCastro and tight ends Jesse James and Vance McDonald were clearing a path for Bell to churn out yards all day.
--PASS DEFENSE: B - Alex Smith entered the game as one of the NFL's top passers, but the Steelers, who own the league's top pass defense, kept Smith and his receivers in check for most of the game. It wasn't until 6:13 remained in the game that Smith broke through with his first touchdown pass of the game. But even that came on a broken play when Smith scrambled from the pocket and found De'Anthony Thomas free in the secondary. Artie Burns and Mike Hilton missed tackles on the play and the missed tackles temporarily put the game in jeopardy. But in the end, the Steelers pass defense made plays. James Harrison's sack of Smith on third down and an incomplete pass on fourth down sealed the victory for the Steelers.
--RUSH DEFENSE: A - One week after surrendering 231 yards to the Jaguars, the Steelers clamped down and allowed just 28 yards on 15 carries to the best rushing team in the NFL. The 28 rushing yards for the Chiefs was their lowest output in five years. The Steelers have been inconsistent stopping the run this season. One week the defense looks like Swiss cheese and the next it appears impenetrable. The Steelers believed their problems were fixable and their performance against the Chiefs suggests they were right. Now the goal should be to play that way on a more consistent basis.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: C - The Steelers had two big mistakes on special teams. The first was Antonio Brown's failure to field a free kick after the Steelers took a 2-0 lead early in the first quarter after a safety. The mishap led to a Chiefs recovery in Steelers territory and led to a field goal. The second mistake came late in the fourth quarter when the punt team allowed a 32-yard return by Tyreek Hill that gave the Chiefs excellent field position when they were trying to score the winning touchdown. Jordan Berry got off his best punt of the day -- a 62-yarder -- but it was so good that he outkicked his coverage. But as poor as the coverage was, Roosevelt Nix deserves credit for helping the Steelers win the game. His hard hit on Hill knocked Hill out for the rest of the game and the Chiefs had to try to beat the Steelers without their top play-making receiver. Chris Boswell also helped the Steelers win by kicking a field goal.
--COACHING: B - Mike Tomlin and his staff did a fine job of preparing their players to beat the Chiefs, who had been the only remaining unbeaten team in the NFL. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler put together a game plan that limited Kareem Hunt, the NFL's leading rusher, to just 21 yards on nine carries. Butler's defense also did an excellent job against the pass until late in the fourth quarter when the Chiefs completed a 57-yard touchdown pass on a broken play that pulled them to within two points. Still, there is work to do. The offense remains a work in progress and failed to score a touchdown when it had first-and-goal at the 2 late in the first half. The red-zone struggles are holding the Steelers back from becoming a complete team.