Pittsburgh Steelers: Antonio Brown

Le'Veon Bell came within 42 yards of leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage in 2014. He joined Pro Football Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk as the only players in NFL history with at least 1,350 rushing yards and 850 receiving yards in a season, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

And yet nothing reflected his value more than the one game that Bell missed.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' offense struggled in a 30-17 AFC wild-card loss to the Baltimore Ravens with Bell watching helplessly on the sidelines because of a hyperextended knee.

The Steelers rushed for only 68 yards and gave up five sacks -- they had yielded four in the their last four regular-season games -- in the loss that ended their season. The critical turnover of the game came in the fourth quarter, when a Ben Roethlisberger pass bounced off the hands of running back Ben Tate and into the arms of Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs.

The Steelers could only wonder what might have been had Bell been healthy enough to play against the Ravens since he excels as a runner and receiver and is also adept at picking up blitzing linebackers.

Bell’s all-around game earned the second-year man a truckload of accolades, and he has been voted the AFC North’s Most Valuable Player.

Bell beat out Roethlisberger, who tied New Orleans’ Drew Brees for the most passing yards (4,952) in 2014, for the honor, which was voted on by ESPN reporters who cover AFC North teams.

“The things that he can do in all three phases of the game to run, to catch the ball, and to block are some of the most special things I’ve ever seen a running back do,” Roethlisberger said during Bell’s breakout season.

Bell set numerous Steelers records, including the one for most yards from scrimmage (2,215) in a season. He also joined the late Walter Payton as the only players in NFL history with at least 200 yards from scrimmage in three consecutive games.

Payton accomplished the feat in 1977. Bell matched it with 711 yards from scrimmage during a three-game stretch that bridged November and December.

“When they were talking about me and Walter Payton being the only ones having that (record), it kind of hit me a little bit,” Bell said, “like, OK, all the hard work I’ve been putting in for 17 years playing football and all the hard work I’ve been putting in is paying off. Being looked at as one of the better players in the NFL is something that I take pride in.”

And Bell only turns 23 when he celebrates his birthday Feb. 18.

"This is only my second year so I feel like I have room for improvement,” Bell said. “There’s still a lot of things I can work on and get better at.”

AFC North Most Valuable Player voting: Le'Veon Bell, 12 points; Ben Roethlisberger, 8; Joe Flacco, 4; Justin Forsett, 3; Antonio Brown, 2; Jeremy Hill, 1.

Panel of voters: Scott Brown, Jeremy Fowler, Coley Harvey, Jamison Hensley and Pat McManamon.
This is the 13th in a series that looks at 17 plays that shaped the Pittsburgh Steelers' season -- one from every game.

For this series we will go in chronological order.

No. 1: Running back Le'Veon Bell's 38-yard touchdown scamper in a 30-27 win over the Cleveland Browns.

No, 2: Wide receiver Justin Brown's lost fumble after a 6-yard reception in a 26-6 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

No. 3: Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones' sack of quarterback Cam Newton for an 8-yard loss in a 37-19 win over the Carolina Panthers.

No. 4: Wide receiver Antonio Brown's drop of a sure touchdown pass in a 27-24 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

No. 5: Cornerback Brice McCain's 21-yard interception return for a touchdown in a 17-9 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

No. 6: Cornerback Cortez Allen getting beat for a 51-yard touchdown catch by Cleveland Browns tight end Jordan Cameron.

No. 7: Running back Le'Veon Bell's 43-yard reception in a 30-23 win over the Houston Texans.

No. 8: Cornerback William Gay's 33-yard interception return for a touchdown in a 51-34 win over the Indianapolis Colts.

No. 9: Wide receiver Markus Wheaton's 47-yard touchdown catch in a 43-23 win over the Baltimore Ravens.

No. 10: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's rare and untimely interception in a 20-13 loss to the New York Jets.

No. 11: Bell's 5-yard touchdown run in a 27-24 win over the Tennessee Titans.

No. 12: New Orleans Saints wide receiver Kenny Stills' 69-yard touchdown catch in a 35-32 win over the Steelers.

No. 13: Outside linebacker Arthur Moats' fumble recovery in a 42-21 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

No. 14: Gay's 52-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Steelers' 27-20 win over the Atlanta Falcons.

No. 15: Defensive end Stephon Tuitt's hustle produces the only turnover of the game.

The setting: The Chiefs, trailing 10-6 in the third quarter at Heinz Field, were on the move when Tuitt showed why the Steelers were ecstatic when he slipped to them in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft.

The play: Quarterback Alex Smith completed a screen pass to running back Jamaal Charles but Tuitt showed great pursuit and belted Charles from behind after a 3-yard gain. Tuitt's hit jarred the ball loose and inside linebacker Vince Williams recovered it at the Steelers' 25-yard line.

What it meant for the bigger picture: The Steelers turned the turnover into a touchdown when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger marched them 75 yards and capped the 10-play drive with a 3-yard scoring pass to wide receiver Antonio Brown. The Steelers went on to beat the Chiefs, 20-12, putting them one win away from capturing their first AFC North title since 2010. Tuitt's big play highlighted the vast improvement the Notre Dame product made from the beginning of the season – and showed why he is a cornerstone of the Steelers' defense moving forward.
The trio that led the Pittsburgh Steelers to their first division title since 2010 also battled for ESPN.com AFC North Offensive Player of the Year honors.

Wide receiver Antonio Brown beat out running back Le'Veon Bell and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the award, garnering 12 points in voting by the five writers who cover AFC North teams.

Brown, who had the second-most catches in an NFL season (129), beat out Bell and Roethlisberger for the honor. Brown led the NFL in receptions and receiving yards (1,698) and was a first-team All-Pro selection.

Bell led the AFC in rushing (1,361 yards) and also led all NFL running backs with 854 receiving yards. The first-team All-Pro selection finished with 10 points after his second NFL season. Roethlisberger, who shared the NFL passing title (4,952 yards) with New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, had six points.

Players received three points for a first-place vote, two for a second-place vote and one for a third-place vote.

Baltimore Ravens running back Justin Forsett and Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill each received a third-place vote.

Forsett did more than soften the Ravens’ blow from the loss of Ray Rice. Forsett, a journeyman, rushed for 1,266 yards, fifth-most in the NFL, and led all running backs with 5.4 yards per carry.

Hill paced all rookie running backs with 1,124 rushing yards and nine touchdowns.

The second-round draft pick finished eighth among all NFL players in rushing yards and second among running backs with 5.1 yards per carry.
This is the fourth in a series that looks at 17 plays that shaped the Pittsburgh Steelers’ season -- one from every game.

For this series we will go in chronological order.

No. 1: Le’Veon Bell’s 38-yard touchdown run in a 30-27 win over the Cleveland Browns.

No, 2: Wide receiver Justin Brown’s lost fumble after a 6-yard reception in a 26-6 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

No. 3: Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones sacked Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton for an 8-yard loss

No. 4: Wide receiver Antonio Brown drops a sure touchdown pass against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The setting: The Steelers had overcome an early 10-0 deficit to take a seven-point lead into the fourth quarter against the upstart Buccaneers and were poised to deliver the kill shot with just under seven-and-a-half minutes left in the fourth quarter.

The play: Offensive coordinator Todd Haley sent in the perfect play when he called for a flea-flicker with the Steelers facing a third-and-11 from their own 45-yard line and protecting a 24-20 lead. Antonio Brown slipped behind the Buccaneers’ defense and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit him in stride. Brown, who consistently makes difficult catches look routine, dropped the ball. The Steelers had to punt and did not get a first down the rest of the game. Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon threw a late touchdown pass to wide receiver Louis Murphy to deliver a 27-24 upset and Tampa Bay’s first win of the season. The Buccaneers would win just one more game the rest of the season.

What it meant for the bigger picture: Brown was fine after botching the catch he makes at least 999 times out of 1,000. The fifth-year veteran caught 129 passes for 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns and earned first-team All-Pro honors. Brown led the NFL in both catches and receiving yards. His 129 receptions were the second most in an NFL season, surpassed only by the 143 grabs Marvin Harrison made for the Indianapolis Colts in 2002. The loss to the Buccaneers, however, continued a troubling trend in which the Steelers played down to the level of their competition. The Steelers were coming off a resounding 37-19 win at Carolina and yet they came out flat at home against the Buccaneers. Then they couldn’t put away Tampa Bay after eventually taking control of the game. This was a bad loss and may not have even been the Steelers’ worst one of the season.
PITTSBURGH – Antonio Brown will try his hand in assembling a team after turning in one of the greatest seasons by a wide receiver in NFL history.

The Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver has been named one of four captains for the Pro Bowl, which will be played Jan. 25 in Glendale, Arizona.

Brown and Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt will draft one team together. Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray and Cleveland Browns Joe Haden, who were also named Pro Bowl captains on Thursday, will draft the other team.

The draft will be televised Jan. 21 at 8 p.m. ET on The NFL Network.

Brown, who led the NFL in catches (129) and receiving yards (1,698) in 2014, is one of four Steelers players who are slated to play in the annual all-star game. It will be the third Pro Bowl appearance for Brown, who had the second-most catches in an NFL season in 2014.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was one of five Steelers players voted to the Pro Bowl late last month but he has pulled out of the game because of inflammation in his knee.

Running back Le'Veon Bell has said he wants to play in the Pro Bowl, but that will depend on how quickly he has healed after hyperextending his right knee in a Dec. 28 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. Center Maurkice Pouncey and linebacker Lawrence Timmons are the Steelers’ other two Pro Bowl selections.

In other Steelers news, the team signed offensive tackle Mitchell Van Dyk Thursday.

The 6-7, 299-pounder played at Portland State and was a seventh-round draft pick by the St. Louis Rams last May. Van Dyk did not make the Rams' 53-man roster at the end of August.
This is the third in a series that looks at 17 plays that shaped the Pittsburgh Steelers’ season – one from every game.

For this series, we are going in chronological order.

No. 1: Le’Veon Bell’s 38-yard touchdown run in a 30-27 win over the Cleveland Browns.

No. 2: Wide receiver Justin Brown’s lost fumble after a 6-yard reception in a 26-6 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

No. 3: Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones sacks Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton for an 8-yard loss.

The setting: The Steelers led the Panthers 9-3 early in the third quarter at Bank of America Stadium when Jones turned in the biggest play of the game.

The play: Jones dropped Newton at the Panthers’ 17-yard line, forcing a fumble that Jason Worilds recovered to give the Steelers’ offense a short field. Four plays later – and after an offside penalty on a field-goal attempt gave the Steelers’ offense a reprieve – quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Antonio Brown. The score broke an eight-quarter touchdown drought and the Steelers found the end zone three more times on the way to a 37-19 win.

What it meant for the bigger picture: Jones dislocated his right wrist while sacking Newton and the Steelers placed him on the injured reserve/designated to return list. His injury set into motion a series of phone calls that led to James Harrison grudgingly coming out of retirement and returning to the Steelers. Harrison, who had officially retired Sept. 5 at Steelers’ headquarters, came back out of a sense of obligation to veterans such as Brett Keisel, Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu, and he played better than anyone could have expected. Harrison recorded 5 sacks in 11 regular-season games and re-established himself as the Steelers’ best pass rusher. Jones returned from a nine-game absence on Dec. 7 in Cincinnati but the 2013 first-round draft pick played sparingly in the Steelers’ final five games, including their AFC wild-card loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Jones simply did not have enough strength in his left hand to do more than spell Harrison down the stretch, making him again one of the Steelers’ biggest question marks heading into the offseason.
PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Jason Worilds has been fined $10,000 for an unnecessary roughness penalty in last Saturday’s AFC wild-card loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

Worilds got into it with some Ravens players after an 8-yard run by Baltimore running back Justin Forsett in the second quarter. The fifth-year veteran was fortunate he did not get ejected after it looked like he took a swing at one of the Ravens.

The unneccessary roughness call on Worilds was one of four 15-yard penalties assessed against the Steelers in their first-ever playoff loss to the Ravens.

The NFL did not fine free safety Mike Mitchell for a helmet-to-helmet hit, wide receiver Antonio Brown for a facemask or safety Shamarko Thomas for a hit out of bounds on a kickoff return.
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PITTSBURGH -- Can a team exceed expectations without even matching their own?

The Pittsburgh Steelers put that riddle to the test in 2014 as they won the AFC North after consecutive 8-8 seasons, but fell well short of the Super Bowl.

The Steelers' goal is to contend for a Super Bowl title every season. That might not be in line with reality, but no other team has six Lombardi Trophies.

The Steelers looked like they might make a postseason charge after winning eight of their final 10 games to finish 11-5 and secure the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs. But winning their first division title since 2010 came with a heavy cost. Pittsburgh lost All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell to a hyperextended knee in the regular-season finale.

Bell did not play in the Steelers' 30-17 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC wild-card game at Heinz Field.

Team MVP: The loss to the Ravens magnified Bell's value to the Steelers' offense. Forget for a moment the running aspect -- and the fact that Bell finished second in the NFL with 1,361 rushing yards -- and consider how his loss impacted the passing game. Bell is terrific at picking up blitzing linebackers and he led all NFL running backs in 2014 with 811 yards after the catch, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger pressed against the Ravens without Bell. The second-year running back emerged as one of the NFL's most complete players, and is the biggest reason why the Steelers' offense rose to another level this season.

Best moment: Roethlisberger threw six touchdown passes in consecutive games, leading the Steelers to big wins over the Indianapolis Colts and Ravens. The hottest stretch of Roethlisberger's career came shortly after a desultory loss in Cleveland dropped Pittsburgh to 3-3 -- and .500 in the 38 regular-season games that followed its most recent playoff appearance in 2011. Roethlisberger completed 75.6 percent of his passes for 862 yards and 12 touchdowns with no interceptions in the two games against the Colts and Ravens. That stretch helped him share the NFL passing title with Drew Brees (4,952 yards).

Worst moment: What goes up inevitably comes down, as the Steelers found out when they traveled to East Rutherford, New Jersey, in the second week of November. Pittsburgh followed a three-game winning streak with a performance against the New York Jets that was as listless as it was inexplicable. The Jets won their second game of the season by flashing the opportunism that had been noticeably absent in their trudge to a 1-9 start. The Steelers committed three turnovers in the 14-10 loss against a team that entered the game with the fewest takeaways in the NFL. The Steelers had a handful of bad losses in 2014; none was worse than the one to the Jets.

2015 outlook: The arrow, as coach Mike Tomlin is fond of saying, is pointing up for the Steelers. The offense returns every starter from this season, and young wide receivers Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton are only going to get better. The caveat with the Steelers, though, is two-fold. The defense remains in transition and there are major questions in the secondary as well as at outside linebacker, where only Jarvis Jones is signed beyond this season. Also, next season's schedule isn't nearly as favorable it was this year. Trips to Seattle, San Diego and Kansas City loom after the Steelers' farthest trip west in 2014 was Tennessee. Pittsburgh also has to play at New England.
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers placed three players on the Associated Press All-Pro team and none of the selection was any surprise.

Wide receiver Antonio Brown, running back Le'Veon Bell and center Maurkice Pouncey were all honored after a season in which the Steelers set a single-season record with 436 points and finished second in the NFL in total offense (411.1 yards per game).

Brown was a second-team All-Pro selection in 2013 when he caught 110 passes for 1,499 yards. All the three-time Pro Bowler did this season was lead the NFL in catches (129) and receiving yards (1,698).

Brown also set a Steelers single-season record with 13 touchdown catches.

“It’s a great honor,” Brown said of earning first-team All-Pro honors. “Any time you can make a jump it’s a positive thing.”

Bell finished second to DeMarco Murray in the NFL with 1,361 rushing yards and set a Steelers’ single-season record with 2,215 yards from scrimmage.

Pouncey returned from a torn ACL he sustained at the start of the 2013 season to anchor the Steelers’ offensive line.

A couple of notes.
  • Bell is a finalist for the NFL’s FedEx Ground Player of the Year, while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is one of three finalists for the FedEx Air Player of the Year. Winners will be determined by a fan vote. To vote click here.
  • ESPN.com NFL writer Ashley Fox takes a fascinating inside look at outside linebacker James Harrison and his return to the Steelers in September.
PITTSBURGH -- Before Antonio Brown was, well Antonio Brown -- or at least the version whose 2014 season has made a compelling case that he is the best wide receiver in the NFL -- he turned in one of the biggest plays of the Pittsburgh Steelers-Baltimore Ravens rivalry.

 It came with just over two minutes left in a 24-24 game in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs. The Steelers had already rallied from a 21-7 deficit when Brown delivered the biggest play of his young career.

The little-known rookie caught a 58-yard pass to set up the winning touchdown, and Brown used his helmet to secure the grab as he was run out of bounds a couple of yards short of the end zone. The Steelers beat the Ravens, 31-24 at Heinz Field, and the catch provided a glimpse into what Brown does now as the three-time Pro Bowler -- regularly making difficult plays look routine.

“I told coach [Mike Tomlin], ‘Let’s just send him deep, they’ll never expect it,’ ” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger recalled. “And he goes right by the guy and catches it on his head. To me that’s the one that sticks out the most.”

Brown is no longer anything close to a secret and the NFL’s 2014 leader in catches (129) and receiving yards (1,698 yards) will be closely followed by the Baltimore Ravens defensive backs on Saturday night.

Brown burned the Ravens for 11 catches for 144 yards and a touchdown the last time Baltimore visited Heinz Field, and his importance in the AFC wild-card game may be magnified because of the uncertain status of Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell.

Just don’t ask Brown about what he considers ancient history.

When asked Wednesday about the catch that put him on the NFL radar, Brown smiled.

“What catch?” he said. “We can’t talk about the past.”
PITTSBURGH – An introduction at a Pittsburgh Steelers team meeting turned into running back Ben Tate telling his new teammates that he is willing to do whatever it takes to help them win.

The Steelers signed Tate on Tuesday afternoon with Le’Veon Bell’s status for Saturday night uncertain. The fourth-year veteran was released twice this season, including last month by the Cleveland Browns after Tate groused about his diminishing role in the offense.

“He stood up in our team meeting room and said he’s just here to help us win,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said Wednesday. “That’s [his] mindset and the attitude and we’re all for it.”

How much Tate can help the Steelers if Bell is unable to play against the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC wild-card game remains to be seen.

Roethlisberger said it is not realistic to expect too much from Tate.

“I don’t know how you could come in in a couple of days and learn a new offense,” Roethlisberger said. “I think if we can put together a specific package, a few runs here, a few passes there, I think he could help us if we need him to.”

That assessment confirms that rookie Josh Harris is in line to start at running back if Bell sits out the third meeting this season between the Ravens and Steelers.

Bell was in the Steelers’ locker room when it was open to the media Wednesday morning and the second-year man did not walk with a noticeable limp.

Bell is expected to address reporters after the Steelers' first practice of the week.

“He said he’s been feeling better and better and we’ll see how the week unfolds,” Steelers Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown said. “I think he’s going to take the proper procedures [to play] because I know what this means to him.”
PITTSBURGH – There is a good chance the Pittsburgh Steelers will go into their AFC wild-card game Saturday night with rookies Josh Harris and Dri Archer as their running backs and fullback Will Johnson, who has played more as a tight end this season, also available for duty.

Not that I would bet against Le'Veon Bell to play against the Baltimore Ravens.

The AFC’s leading rusher takes an incredible amount of pride in his durability -- Bell has played in 29 consecutive games -- and had never been hurt, in high school or college, before missing the first three games of his rookie season because of a mid-foot sprain.

The second-year man will do everything he can to play against the Ravens, which means the Steelers might have to protect Bell from himself.

Even if Bell doesn’t risk more serious injury to his right knee by playing against the Ravens, it makes little sense for the Steelers to play the freshly-minted Pro Bowl running back -- in what promises to be a hard-hitting game -- if it only further weakens him.

Winning a division title as well as game in the playoffs is fine for most franchises. It is not for one that has won six Lombardi Trophies, which is why the Steelers have to take a bigger-picture approach to Bell's injury.

They can’t make a legitimate run at a Super Bowl title without a healthy Bell, so why not rest him for a week and put the ball in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s hands?

Roethlisberger strafed the Ravens’ secondary for 340 passing yards and six touchdowns the most recent time the AFC North rivals played at Heinz Field. The Ravens allowed 249 passing yards per game in the regular season, and no team has had an answer for Antonio Brown, who has had one of the finest seasons by a wide receiver in NFL history.

Roethlisberger-to-Brown in front of a charged home crowd, with a defense that has made significant improvement in the second half of the season? It might not be that simple, as far as the Steelers advancing past the wild-card round for the first time since 2010.

But the Steelers have to be tempted to try that formula and bring Bell back the following week, if they beat the Ravens, in Denver.

Grading the Pittsburgh Steelers

December, 29, 2014
PITTSBURGH -- Here are the marks for the Pittsburgh Steelers after they beat the Cincinnati Bengals, 27-17, to win the AFC North and snag the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs.

Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger missed some throws in completing 24 of 38 passes for 317 yards and two touchdowns and one interception. But he also missed pregame warm-ups because of a stomach virus and played well considering the circumstances. His 63-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown sealed the win that delivered the Steelers' first AFC North title since 2010. Grade: B

[+] EnlargeBrown
AP Photo/Don WrightSteelers receiver Antonio Brown has been reliable in the red zone this season, scoring once against the Bengals in Week 17 and 13 overall this season.
Running backs: Le'Veon Bell managed just 20 yards on eight carries before leaving the game in the third quarter with a hyper-extended right knee. But the AFC's leading rusher caught six passes for 80 yards, showing what a weapon he is in the passing game. Josh Harris had a 59-yard run negated by a holding penalty and Dri Archer made a couple of key catches after Bell got hurt. Grade: C+

Receivers: Running out of superlatives when it comes to Brown, who turned in one of the finest seasons by a wide receiver in NFL history -- as well as the catch and run that allowed the Steelers to hold off the Bengals. Tight end Heath Miller caught three passes for 41 yards, and he and wide receiver Markus Wheaton executed textbook seal blocks on Martavis Bryant's 21-yard catch and run for a touchdown. Grade: A-

Offensive line: The Steelers have averaged just 43.3 rushing yards in their last three contests and they need the line to impose its will more in the ground game. A bad snap by center Maurkice Pouncey led to a costly turnover and left guard Ramon Foster's holding penalty wiped out what would have been the longest run of the game. But the line did not allow a sack and provided excellent protection on a night when its quarterback was already dealing with a stomach virus. Grade: B-

Defensive line: The Steelers allowed only their second 100-yard rusher in their last nine games but they shored up the run after Jeremy Hill gashed them for 71 yards and 6.5 yards per carry in the first half. Cameron Heyward forced the Bengals to settle for a field goal early in the second quarter when he sacked Andy Dalton. Heyward finished the season with 7.5 sacks, tied for the team lead, and also led the Steelers with 21 quarterback hurries. Grade: B-

Linebackers: Lawrence Timmons recorded a game-high 11 tackles and Jason Worilds helped preserve the Steelers' win with a late sack of Dalton. Worilds tied Heyward for the team lead in sacks. And the fifth-year veteran would have finished with 8.5 quarterback takedowns -- the same number as last season -- had a sack in Atlanta not been taken away from him by a highly questionable roughing the passer penalty. Grade: B-

Cornerbacks: All Brice McCain and Antwon Blake did was combined for two interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. The pair along with William Gay limited Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green to eight catches for 82 yards, three weeks after the perennial Pro Bowler scorched the Steeler for 224 receiving yards and a touchdown. Grade: A

Safeties: Will Allen has been an upgrade over the injured Troy Polamalu at strong safety the past two games and the 11th-year veteran turned in several key plays early and finished with seven tackles. Free safety Mike Mitchell added five stops and a few big hits and the back end of the defense did not give up a big play. The Bengals' longest completion was a 19-yard pass from Dalton to H-back Ryan Hewitt. Grade: B+

Special teams: A lot to like here even with the failed fake punt at a critical juncture in the fourth quarter. Brown's 71-yard punt return for a touchdown showcased his magical skills with the ball in his hands. But the Steelers also did an excellent job of blocking the play. They also limited Adam Jones to an average of 22.8 yards on five kickoff returns. Jones had averaged 44.3 yards on three kickoff returns in the Bengals' previous game. Grade: B+

Coaching: Can we please put to rest any silly claims that Mike Tomlin's early success as a head coach was a result of his inheriting Bill Cowher's players? The man can coach and his teams have gone 12-4 combined in the second half of the past two seasons. One sign of how the Steelers improved as the season progressed under Tomlin: they were penalized 31 times in the first three games and just 11 times in the last four contests. This grade gets knocked down a bit because of that dubious decision to attempt a fake punt. Grade:A-

PITTSBURGH -- The biggest reason to think the Pittsburgh Steelers will be all right if running back Le'Veon Bell is unable to play in the wild-card round is Antonio Brown.

Forget the three-time Pro Bowler's statistics for a second.

They are staggering and dizzying, but they don't completely do justice to the player who lights up rooms with his megawatt smile and lights up defenses with his mad football skills.

Brown returned a punt 71 yards for a touchdown to open the scoring Sunday night in a 27-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. He capped the scoring with a 63-yard touchdown reception, a play that allowed Steelers fans who had crammed into Heinz Field to exhale and Pittsburgh to win its first division title since 2010.

Brown made both look plays look easy, even though they were anything but.

Brown caught Kevin Huber's punt early in the first quarter and proceeded to run horizontally, something generally not encouraged in the NFL. He reversed field, and after directing Shamarko Thomas into Huber's path, he was off to his third career punt return for a touchdown.

All three are against the Bengals, for those who are scoring at home, and for those -- ahem, Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis -- who should be.

Brown struck again after the Bengals had knocked Bell out of the game and pulled to within three points. Two plays after cornerback Antwon Blake forced and recovered a fumble, the Steelers faced a critical third-and-8 from their own 37 with just over three minutes left in a three-point game.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw a pass down the right sideline that Brown caught even though Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was in decent position to make a play. Brown made a seamless adjustment and Kirkpatrick looked lost. Sixty-three yards later, Brown had scored the touchdown that all but clinched the Steelers' 11th win of 2014 and set a franchise record for most scoring catches in a season (13).

"He's a playmaker," Roethlisberger said. "I have all of the faith and trust in the world in him."

So does coach Mike Tomlin, whose appreciation for the 195th pick of the 2010 NFL draft goes way beyond Brown's immense physical talent.

"It's not haphazard the he rises up in moments," Tomlin said after winning the AFC North for the fourth time in eight seasons. "He works harder than he plays. I hope that is a blueprint for our younger guys, and I think it is, how to work and ultimately how to deliver for your teammates."

The Steelers might need Brown, who led the NFL in both receptions (129) and receiving yards (1,698) this season, do that more than ever Saturday night.

He is the only one of the Steelers' Big Three who didn't have to battle through a stomach virus during the Bengals game or slowly walk to a cart with his right knee wrapped in ice after the game.

Roethlisberger, whose linemen said he was sicker than he let on, should be fine by Saturday night, when the Steelers host the Ravens in a wild-card game. Less certain is the status of Bell, who hyperextended his knee after taking a direct hit on it from Bengals safety Reggie Nelson.

Brown, on the other hand, is a picture of health, and he is close to unstoppable right now.

The Steelers might need him to lead the way Saturday night, when they try to advance beyond the wild-card round of the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

"The playoff is starting a new season," Brown said.

The Steelers can only hope it is the same old story for their star wide receiver.
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did not take part in pregame warm-ups because of a stomach virus but the 11th-year veteran started Sunday night against the Cincinnati Bengals in a game that will decide the AFC North champion.

Roethlisberger completed 2-of-4 passes for 24 yards on the opening drive of the game with a drop from veteran tight end Heath Miller. The Steelers reached their own 49-yard line before the drive stalled and they had to punt.

“I expect him to be Ben,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told NBC’s Michelle Tafoya during a pregame interview. “We all have to go to work from time to time at less than ideal circumstances.”

The Steelers scored first on an electrifying punt return from Antonio Brown after the Bengals went three-and-out on their first possession at Heinz Field.

Brown fielded Kevin Huber's 54-yard punt and ran right before reversing field and getting enough blocks and interference to race 71 yards for the touchdown.

It was Brown’s third career punt return for a touchdown. All have come against the Bengals.

Since 2011, only Atlanta’s Devin Hester and Arizona’s Patrick Peterson have had more punt returns for touchdowns (4).