Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant has been a home-run hitter since joining the team in 2014. Though he’s still mastering the art of catching passes more reliably, with just 26 receptions on 48 targets last year, those 26 catches netted the Steelers 549 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s charting a similar path in 2015, so far totaling 50 catches on 92 targets for 765 yards and six scores.
But in the past two weeks, Bryant has nearly disappeared, with just four catches on six targets for six yards and no scores. Though some of his Week 17 production (three targets, one catch, zero yards) could be ascribed to missing practices with an illness and a minor neck injury suffered in the game, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sees a bigger pattern at play.
Earlier this week, on his radio show on 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger called out the receiver, saying, Bryant must “get tough, and you've got to make tough plays and you've got to make tough catches.” The comment, from a place of “love” according to Roethlisberger, was a way to challenge Bryant to take advantage of his full potential.
The message was clear to Bryant, who said (via ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler) that he’s “happy” Roethlisberger “issued out the challenge,” adding, “I accept it.” He continued, “If [Roethlisberger] feels you need to step up your game, it's his job to call you out," Bryant said of his quarterback. "I'm happy he did it. It woke me up. I'm ready to work… He wants to see me be great.”
The Steelers will need Bryant at full focus and capacity for Saturday night’s Wild Card playoff contest against the Cincinnati Bengals. With it looking less and less likely that running back DeAngelo Williams will play, the Steelers will be pass-heavy on offense. And the Bengals are the rare defense who can keep receiver Antonio Brown in check—he’s averaging only 79.5 yards per game against them. That means Bryant may see a heavy dose of targets and he needs to be ready. It’s been an up-and-down year for Bryant so far. Though he has surpassed is catch and yardage totals from a year ago and has a half-dozen touchdowns, he’s tied for fourth among receivers in drops, with 11 according to Pro Football Focus, though he ranks just 38th in targets. Bryant must do more than just acknowledge his quarterback’s wakeup call; he must also turn it into positive on-field action against Cincinnati in this all-or-nothing game.
Cincinnati Bengals: McCarron to Start; Jackson Hot Coaching Candidate
While starting Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton had his cast removed from his broken right thumb this week, the team is still preparing A.J. McCarron to make his postseason debut against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday night, reports the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Jim Owczarski. The only question about Dalton’s role is whether he’ll serve as McCarron’s backup, with head coach Marvin Lewis saying, “[Starting quarterback is] not going to change later in the week. We are preparing for AJ McCarron to be the starting quarterback. Whether Andy is a backup or where Andy is we will know down the line.”
Dalton fractured the thumb in his team’s Week 14 loss to the Steelers. In the three games he’s missed the Bengals have won two and lost one with McCarron under center. This, though, is a different situation altogether: The Playoffs. And while McCarron’s Bengals have home-field advantage, McCarron has never stared down such a high-stakes situation. All eyes will be on whether he can handle the pressure of Pittsburgh’s defense, which thrives against inexperienced quarterbacks and which boasts 48 sacks on the season.
No matter what befalls the Bengals on Saturday, one thing is becoming more and more obvious: Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is a much-coveted commodity for the teams searching to fill their head coaching vacancies. NFL.com is reporting Jackson will meet with the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins as early as Sunday. If hired, this would be Jackson’s second tenure as an NFL head coach; he served as head coach of the Oakland Raiders in 2011.
Baltimore Ravens: Webb Moving from Cornerback to Safety?
Baltimore Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb was experimentally placed at the safety position during the final month of the season, particularly in response to the team’s lack of depth. But the veteran corner, coming off of his seventh season with the team, says the move will be made permanent in 2016.
“I’m going to make that move. We’re trying to become a more athletic secondary. Me at free safety, I think that will help out a lot, with me roaming the middle of the field and just being able to have more control over the defense,” Webb said on Sunday to the Ravens’ official website. Webb played safety in college and thought that at some point he’d return to his old position in the NFL, saying, “It just came to the time of when they wanted to make that move—now or three years from now. It happened now.”
Webb appeared in 15 games in 2015 with 14 starts, had 48 solo tackles, 11 passes defensed and an interception. But at 30 years old, he’s starting to slow down, and it’s common practice in the NFL to move an older—but still effective—corner to safety to keep him on the field in a position that better suits his evolving skill set.
The move also benefits Baltimore’s defense from a leadership standpoint. As Webb said, “The safety is making all the calls, all the checks. You just have to be more in tune. Basically everybody is waiting on me to make a check at safety, so you are in control of the defense. I like that part. I’m getting older and being more of a leader.”
The question is, though, what effect this may have on Webb’s contract. His $9.5 million cap figure for 2016 would make him the third-highest paid safety, per ESPN’s Jamison Hensley, so it’s possible the switch at position could carry with it either a restructured contract or a pay cut.