Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown stiff arms Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden after a reception in the second quarter, November 20, 2016, at FirstEnergy Stadium. John Kuntz, cleveland.com
Yes, the wind was brutal. And, yes, the game plan was to control the clock. But that slow-cooked game plan won't work every week, possibly as soon as Thursday night at Lucas Oil Stadium against the Indianapolis Colts.
The Browns simply weren't good enough to stop Bell, who was brilliant on 28 rushes for 146 yards and another 55 yards on eight receptions. Coach Mike Tomlin called Bell's performance "timely," as it helped the Steelers win their first game since Oct. 9. Brown added 76 yards on eight catches, a modest day for one of the game's best.
But when the Baltimore Ravens circled Bell and Brown on the game plan a few weeks ago, the role players couldn't elevate their play.
Rogers is the closest thing the Steelers have to a No. 2 receiver, and he had momentum after a combined 145 yards the previous two weeks. But he hasn't done it consistently. He finished with 20 yards Sunday, and he had that October lull coming off a turf toe issue and out of Tomlin's doghouse (where he landed for undisclosed reasons).
Sammie Coates continues to be a curious case. Something is fuzzy here, beyond his injured hand. He has hardly played the past two weeks. Markus Wheaton entered the year as the No. 2 but ended up on injured reserve. Darrius Heyward-Bey has a midfoot sprain. That leaves Hamilton, a former street free agent who has been solid but won't change the complexion of the offense.
The Steelers have high hopes for Green, a $20 million free-agent signing, but he's off to a slow start. He was a nonfactor in the passing game Sunday. James does a few good things but is largely unspectacular.
Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Ladarius Green misses a catch in the end zone as he is double teamed by the Cleveland Browns in the second half. (Joshua Gunter, cleveland.com)
One of these players must consistently command respect from opposing defenses to alleviate pressure elsewhere.
Maybe the No. 2 role belongs to the offensive line, which Bell said was eager to help the Steelers run the ball effectively after feeling unsatisfied with its performance the previous two weeks.
The Steelers' line, which dominated the Browns' front on the way to an average of 5.2 yards per carry, wants to bear the burden during the late-season push. The offensive linemen want the ball in Bell's hands so they can create holes.
The Steelers have invested up to $142 million in long-term contract money on the line over the past few years. They pay it to wear opponents down.
"This is November football and it's exciting," right tackle Marcus Gilbert said. "This is when championship teams develop. We are a high-caliber team and we need to play like it. We need to finish drives and we need to get the ball in the hands of No. 26."
And Bell, for his part, can handle the load. "Even when there wasn't [a hole], he made it happen," Roethlisberger said of Bell's performance Sunday.
But even if the line finds its rhythm, that doesn't offset the lack of explosion from Brown and Roethlisberger, at least compared with their wildly successful standards. Brown's 77 catches for 907 yards are among the league's best through 10 games. But those connections that used to be automatic -- particularly by the sideline -- simply haven't been there as often this season.
At times, the duo looks ... mortal.
Another good defense is going to try to place a cocoon around Brown and target Bell up the middle. Then the Steelers will once again accept applications for the sidekick role that the suspended Martavis Bryant filled so well.