Antonio Brown missed an important Week 17 game against the Bengals — and it may not have been because of an injury. Instead, the All-Pro wide receiver may have been held out of the game due to disciplinary issues that tie back to an increasingly volatile Steelers locker room.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staff writers Gerry Dulac and Ed Bouchette reported Monday Brown’s trip to the inactive list for what proved to be his team’s season finale wasn’t due to a balky knee like head coach Mike Tomlin told the press on Sunday. Instead, his absence was a disciplinary reaction that came after a week filled with missed team activities and an argument with an unnamed teammate.
While the Steelers were able to win without their star wideout, a sputtering offense made things much more difficult that expected against a spiraling Bengals team. While that gave Pittsburgh the victory it needed to stay alive in the playoff race, the Ravens’ nailbiting win over the Browns clinched the AFC North for Baltimore and all but eliminated the Steelers from playoff contention.
What did the reports say about Antonio Brown?
While Dulac and Bouchette don’t name who the confrontation was with, NFL Network scribe Aditi Kinkhabwala reported that multiple sources had told her Brown and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had “a little bit of a disagreement” during Wednesday’s practice. ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler characterized the incident as Brown “going off” on a teammate, According to Mark Kaboly of The Athletic, Antonio Brown threw a ball towards Ben Roethlisberger before walking out of practice.
Was told this afternoon by a source during Steelers locker room clean out that Antonio Brown threw a ball near/at feet of Ben Roethlisberger and walked out of practice. Post-Gazette reporting Brown skipped Sat walkthrough and expected to play Sunday. He didn’t. @TheAthleticPGH
— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly) December 31, 2018
He did not attend practices the rest of the week, including Saturday’s walk-through practice, and skipped the Saturday night meeting at the team hotel. Brown never took the field for the start of the game against the Bengals and left Heinz Field at halftime, according to multiple sources.
Steelers receiver Antonio Brown did not play in the season-ending game against the Cincinnati Bengals because he elected to sit out practice last week after an unspecified heated dispute with a teammate, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has learned.
Several sources said the Steelers’ decision to not play Brown against the Bengals had nothing to do with any type of knee injury.
The disagreement occurred Wednesday morning during a routine walk-through practice that precedes their regular afternoon practice on the South Side. Brown became disgusted and threw a football in anger at one of his teammates, several sources said.
He did not attend Saturday’s walk-through practice and skipped the Saturday night meeting at the team hotel — the latest in missed meetings by the All-Pro receiver. Brown was never on the field for the start of the game against the Bengals and left Heinz Field at halftime, according to multiple sources.
Dulac and Bouchette’s report also suggested Brown showed up to the locker room on Sunday morning expecting to play, only to be shut down by Tomlin. This further annoyed teammates, who called Brown’s behavior “embarrassing” and “the worst I’ve seen.”
Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner refused to discuss Brown’s absence after he missed Thursday’s team activities, an out-of-character response toward a player working through an injury, but a telling one for a healthy scratch from the mid-week practice. When Steelers officials were asked about potential discipline after Brown skipped Saturday’s walkthrough, they deflected those queries to Tomlin’s upcoming press conference.
I asked a #Steelers spokesman earlier today if the team had any plans to censure or discipline Antonio Brown for missing Saturday’s walkthrough. Was told Mike Tomlin will address any questions of that ilk at his press conference. Which we now know is Wednesday.
— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) December 31, 2018
This isn’t the first time discord leaked through the seams of the Steelers’ locker room in 2018
Pittsburgh has courted drama throughout the season, though much of it came as a function of Le’Veon Bell’s year-long holdout in hopes of a lucrative long term contract. Bell’s absence put a strain on the rest of one of the league’s most talented offenses. While second-year back James Conner was able to pick up much of the slack, the club still struggled early and then spun out late as a 9-6-1 season ended without a playoff berth.
But while Bell may have been the focus of Pittsburgh’s locker room drama, Brown also made his issues with the franchise known throughout the season. A slow start led the All-Pro wideout to vent his frustrations both on the field and off. He wasn’t shy about expressing his concerns about Fichtner’s playcalling to his face in a Week 2 loss to the Chiefs:
The following day, he’d take to Twitter to respond to a Steelers’ PR staffer’s praise of Ben Roethlisberger and his role in the team’s success. His since-deleted Tweet was succinct: “Trade me let’s find out”
Both Brown and his agent Drew Rosenhaus would deny Brown wanted to be traded out of Pittsburgh, but the wideout’s discontent was clear. He’d skip team meetings the following Monday, though those came with Tomlin’s blessing. He returned to practice the following Wednesday after dealing with private discipline from Tomlin and the rest of the Pittsburgh coaching staff.
What’s next for the Steelers and Brown?
When Brown was on the field, he was still an elite receiver. 2018 marked his sixth straight 1,200-yard season, and that kind of performance makes him difficult to trade away — especially for a team so reliant on a bludgeoning aerial attack. It also gives him a little more leeway when it comes to getting away with locker room shenanigans, like in 2017 when he gave the Patriots some bulletin board material by recording Tomlin talking about New England in the locker room after a Divisional Round victory over the Chiefs.
Despite these issues, Brown had a typically great season. He caught 104 passes for 1,297 yards and 15 touchdowns — the 15 touchdowns were a career high. The seven-time Pro Bowler also passed the 10,000 yard milestone for his career. Brown’s 168 targets on the season ranked third behind Julio Jones (170) and Davante Adams (169).
Brown’s concerns about not getting the ball may have been valid. While JuJu Smith-Schuster’s ascendance left him as the Steelers’ most productive receiver, Brown was still the No. 1 target who drew double teams and allowed his fellow receivers to thrive. That passing threat also created space for Conner to thrive in a breakout sophomore campaign; he ran for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns in 13 games while serving as the Pepsi to Bell’s Coke.
And Brown’s absence appeared to play a role in Pittsburgh’s sluggish start in Week 17. The Steelers faced the league’s worst defense in a deficient Bengals team, but managed to score just 16 points in the process. Without Brown on the field, Smith-Schuster was limited to just five catches and 37 yards — though he did score the game’s only offensive touchdown.
Was that a function of Cincinnati finding the extra space to double down on Pittsburgh’s playmakers without Brown on the field? Was it due to Brown’s behavior affecting the rest of the team’s desire to play, as one unnamed player suggested to the Post-Gazette? Or did the Bengals just play a little harder with the chance to derail a rival’s playoff hopes on the line?
No one’s quite sure. So far all we have are reports, and no one from the Steelers’ side of things — whether that’s players, coaches, or staffers — has come out to make an official statement on the matter. But what is clear is that Brown and the Steelers will likely have to work through some issues if they’re going to reconcile for a happy and prosperous 2019.