It was a welcome distraction for the Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro wide receiver, but make no mistake. The way Brown’s 2015 season ended — out of the lineup while dealing with a concussion as the Steelers let a fourth-quarter lead slip away in the division round against Denver — still stings.
“Any time you finish the year and leave something incomplete, it stays on your mind,” Brown said.
Brown and his teammates have tried to avoid the “what-if” game, though it hasn’t been easy. Even short-handed they gave the eventual Super Bowl champion Broncos all they could handle before fading in the final minutes.
“It’s one of those things where if you’re not trying to get better, you’re going to get beat and you’re going to get worse,” guard David DeCastro said. “So, you always have to keep pushing the envelope.”
The Steelers return the league’s third-ranked offense, heady territory considering quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Le’Veon Bell both missed significant time because of injuries. The defense gave up plenty of yards but also produced 30 turnovers, the kind of splash plays coach Mike Tomlin covets.
The past three years have seen Pittsburgh take steady steps back toward the NFL elite, from a .500 mark in 2013 to a wild-card round loss in 2014 to a spot in the division round last winter. There is momentum to be sure, but also plenty to work on ahead of the Sept. 12 season opener at Washington.
Here are some things to know about the Steelers going into camp:
MISSING MARTAVIS: Talented but erratic wide receiver Martavis Bryant will miss 2016 while serving a suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, taking his 14 touchdowns with him.
“You can’t really replace a guy like that with the tools that he has, his understanding, and his physical attributes,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s hard to replicate that. The other guys have to step up and do it. And stay healthy.”
Finding a reliable third option behind Brown and Markus Wheaton will come down to veteran Darius Heyward-Bey and second-year player Sammie Coates. Both made significant plays in the playoff loss to Denver, though more will be expected with increased playing time.
SPEED TO BURN(S): Artie Burns became the first cornerback taken by the Steelers in the first round of the draft since 1997 when they grabbed him out of Miami with the 25th overall pick. There’s a chance for Burns to enter the starting lineup immediately if he stays healthy and picks up defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s system. Burns proved to be a ravenous learner during minicamp and organized team activities, welcoming the chance to go one-on-one against Brown, even if the matchup is pretty one-sided, at least for now.
“He has a mentality that he wants to be there and be productive, and do things that we want him to do,” secondary coach Carnell Lake said. “If he doesn’t get it, he wants more reps added. That’s a good sign.”
GOING GREEN: Tight end Heath Miller retired in February in typically understated fashion after 11 seasons as Roethlisberger’s security blanket. Enter Ladarius Green, signed as a free agent from San Diego after spending four seasons as an understudy to Antonio Gates. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound Green has an explosiveness Miller lacked, but was slowed a bit by offseason ankle surgery but is expected to be ready when camp starts.
“He’s like the brand new Ferrari that I have that’s in the impound lot, and we are just looking through the fence at it,” Roethlisberger said.
LE’VEON’S LEAP: When healthy, Bell is one of the most dynamic backs in the league. Yet he’s seen each of his past two seasons end with knee injuries suffered against the Bengals. The team has yet to approach him about a new contract as he enters the final year of his rookie deal. Bell insists the uncertainty about his future won’t be a distraction. He just wants to play.
“I feel like my luck probably, hopefully, should change this year and I’ll be on the field, nothing freaky,” Bell said. “Just take care of my body, do the little things right, and if I do that I’ll be OK.”