Fichtner: Plenty in place to replace Brown ☕


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JuJu Smith-Schuster (19) and James Washington (13) share a moment on the sideline. -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Randy Fichtner has been tasked with finding ways for the Steelers to replicate or replace Antonio Brown's production from 2018.

The 104 receptions should be easily accounted for by the duo of James Washington and Donte Moncrief. The same goes for the 1,297 yards Brown posted in 2018.

But 15 touchdowns?

That led all NFL receivers. And replacing that might be Fichtner's biggest task.

The Steelers have been working hard on implementing their new weapons into their system. And that system is what has Fichtner hopeful the team won't miss a beat in 2019, despite trading Brown to the Raiders during the offseason.

Brown and the Raiders are ticketed for HBO's "Hard Knocks." For the Steelers, it will be more about opportunity knocking for their receivers.

"You’d like to think everything comes with the system," Fichtner said Wednesday during the second day of the Steelers' minicamp. "What you don’t have to replace is the guy throwing the ball. It’s always going to take a group effort when you score a touchdown. I know this: If you don’t have the group effort, you’re not scoring many touchdowns. Collectively, we’re going to have to chew on all of that. It’s going to come. The opportunities are going to come for somebody. Everyone has to start and has an opportunity to put their hand in the pile and see if they can do it."

Fichtner was, of course, referring to Ben Roethlisberger when talking about the guy throwing the ball. And that is another thing that gives the Steelers hope.

Roethlisberger threw a career-high 34 touchdown passes in 2018. And though 15 went to Brown, he wasn't the team's top red zone target.

JuJu Smith-Schuster led the Steelers with 29 targets inside the opponents' 20 last season, with Roethlisberger completing 16 of those for 99 yards and five touchdowns. Inside the 10, Smith-Schuster was targeted 11 times.

Brown, on the other hand, received 24 targets inside the 20, with Roethlisberger completing 11 of those for 80 yards and six touchdowns.

Both were among the highest-targeted players inside the 20 in the NFL, with Smith-Schuster ranking second and Brown eighth, and the Steelers led the league in red-zone touchdown percentage at 73.5 percent.

Obviously, since only six of Brown's touchdowns came in the red zone, he did a lot of his work from a little farther out. That's where the speed of Moncrief or the excellent catch radius of Washington could come into play.

One thing both of those players are still working on, however, is that trust Roethlisberger had with Brown. Washington is in just his second season with the Steelers, while Moncrief joined the team as a free agent.

"One of the things that happens when you have such continuity, AB and Ben had been together for a long time. A lot of touchdowns were made on extended plays, broken plays, made by both guys," Fichtner acknowledged. "Ben’s still going to have an opportunity to make those broken plays. What are going to be the reactions of the other guys to maybe catch the ball?"

Roethlisberger said earlier this week he's been pleasantly surprised with the way Moncrief, all 6-foot-2, 216 pounds of him, has quickly incorporated himself in the offense.

“I didn’t know him, obviously, and now just getting to see his work ethic, the type of person he is, his desire to be great, his knowledge of the offense already,” Roethlisberger said. “We’ll do no-huddle stuff and I’ll give him a signal and I’ll be like, ‘You good?’ and he’ll be like, ‘Yeah.’

“You see the desire and the want to be great, so I’ve really enjoyed to opportunity to know him and to work with him so far.”

And his second season with Washington, a second-round pick in 2018, should be better. The Steelers have high expectations for Smith-Schuster and tight end Vance McDonald, as well.

But can that group -- at least primarily -- produce 34 touchdowns again?

"We know that’s going to happen somehow, some way," Fichtner said. "I think Vance, JuJu, James, Donte, these guys are all going to have to step up. That’s the expectation, that they will."


The Steelers ran the ball effectively in close last season, and that could help offset some of Brown's production, as well, in 2019.

But the team must find a way to move the ball effectively when Smith-Schuster is consistently doubled, as he can expect to be this season. That's where the other three guys will come into play.

It's a much bigger, perhaps more physical receiving group that we've seen from the Steelers in quite some time. And Moncrief has shown that he's still a threat — with his 4.4 40 speed — thus far in the offseason program. He can fly.

The receiving group might not have the star power of a year ago, but it is deeper, for sure, when rookie Diontae Johnson is factored into the equation. Add in veterans Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers, and it might be the deepest group of receivers the team has had since 2011, when they had an aging Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Brown.

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