The Steelers barely squeaked past the Bengals in a must-win game Sunday and sure could have used star wide receiver Antonio Brown, who sat out with what was described as an injured knee.
As it turns out, the situation may have involved more insult than injury. Reports Monday claimed Brown was benched following a dispute with Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
According to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, the “altercation” with Roethlisberger was “fairly ugly” and Brown was said to be “totally in the wrong.” The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly wrote on Twitter that a source in Pittsburgh’s locker room told him Brown “threw a ball near/at feet” of Roethlisberger and “walked out of practice.”
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the incident with Roethlisberger occurred during a walk-through session before Wednesday’s practice. According to the newspaper, Brown was benched for the Week 17 home game against Cincinnati, one the Steelers needed to win to have any hope of reaching the playoffs, after he “elected to sit out practice last week” following the dispute.
After being absent from practices on Wednesday and the following two days, Brown was reported to have skipped Pittsburgh’s walk-through session Saturday, as well as the team meeting that evening. Nevertheless, he showed up at Heinz Field on Sunday expecting to play, per the Post-Gazette, but was not on the field for the start of the game and left the stadium at halftime.
An anonymous Steelers player described the scene to the newspaper as “embarrassing” and called it “the worst I’ve seen.” In Brown’s absence, Roethlisberger threw for 287 yards but averaged just 6.4 yards per attempt with one touchdown and one interception, while no Steelers receiver had more than 64 yards. The team needed a late field goal to beat the Bengals, 16-13.
Pittsburgh improved to 9-6-1 but missed the playoffs when the Ravens beat the Browns and took the AFC North title, followed by the Colts' defeat of the Titans to grab the final AFC berth. The Steelers ended up losing four of their final six games to miss the postseason for the first time since 2013, but what was already considered a very disappointing season took a darker turn Monday.
NFL Network’s Aditi Kinkhabwala said Monday that several Pittsburgh players told her that “the disarray surrounding this situation, the frustration, definitely affected the Steelers in the first half,” when Roethlisberger and Co. got off to a slow start. Kinkhabwala added that she was told Brown was not at the team facility Monday, when exit meetings were being conducted, and that “the bigger issue” for some veteran Steelers was that Coach Mike Tomlin “did not even address” that situation with his players.
Kinkhabwala said veterans told her that, “for this Steelers team to move forward, for next year to be different, for chemistry to be different, this has to be about player leadership, this has to be about players holding each other accountable.”
While Tomlin has garnered some criticism over the past few years for being too much of a players' coach and tolerating diva-like behavior by some of his stars, Roethlisberger has not been shy about calling out teammates on occasion.
In November, after criticizing the route-running of Brown at the end of a close loss, Roethlisberger asserted that he had “earned the right to be able to do that,” citing his long tenure in Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger said at the time that the Steelers would have been better off targeting the team’s other starting wide receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster, during a late sequence near the goal line.
While Brown enjoyed another stellar campaign, going over 100 catches for the sixth straight year while posting 1,297 yards and an NFL-leading 15 touchdown receptions, Smith-Schuster led the team with 111 catches for 1,426 yards. Players voted the 22-year-old as the Steelers' MVP.
Early in the season, Brown was spotted having a sideline outburst at a Pittsburgh assistant coach during a loss to the Chiefs. A day after that, he posted a tweet in which he suggested that the Steelers “trade” him to “find out” what life might be like without his talents.
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