The Steelers knew there might be some growing pains when it came to the idea of replacing Antonio Brown in their lineup. After all, you don't simply snap your fingers and recreate the 104 receptions, 1297 yards or 15 touchdowns Brown had in 15 games in 2018.
But they probably didn't expect their passing game to look as disjointed as it did last Sunday night in their regular-season opener at New England.
Ben Roethlisberger's final numbers -- 276 yards -- don't look all that out of the norm. But his completion percentage of 57.4 was certainly below the line. And the fact the Steelers scored just three points — they failed to produce a touchdown for the first time in their past 21 games while suffering their worse loss since Week 3 of the 2016 season in Philadelphia.
That's especially true considering Roethlisberger was sacked just one time in the game and hit only three times. Roethlisberger had time to throw the football. But his receivers either didn't get open, dropped the ball or he misfired in what was an erratic performance all around.
Fixing that this week will be the Steelers' main task as they head into their home opener Sunday against the Seahawks at Heinz Field.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment was veteran receiver Donte Moncrief. Moncrief, brought in on a two-year, $9-million deal to help offset the loss of Brown, was targeted 10 times against the Patriots.
He caught just three of those passes, dropping or having five knocked from his hands, for a measly seven yards. There were 14 receivers in the league last week targeted more often than Moncrief. Of those players who were targeted more, only the Cardinals' Christian Kirk (12 targets, 4 catches for 32 yards) and the Falcons' Julio Jones (11 targets, 6 receptions for 31 yards) were even in the same neighborhood in terms of lack of productivity.
"When you're watching those plays and you know you're supposed to make them and you don't, it's sickening," Moncrief said Wednesday after watching the tape of the game.
Roethlisberger had expressed a lot of confidence in the abilities of Moncrief throughout the offseason. And his confidence isn't wavering in the six-year veteran.
"Nothing has changed with that," Roethlisberger said Wednesday. "I think he's a smart receiver. He's a guy that's going to give you everything he's got. He's a veteran guy who has been around. He can run different routes. He's not just a deep-ball guy. And I really just like the personality that he has. He's easy to talk to and will communicate back to you. I'm excited for him this week. I think we'll see some big things."
Moncrief and JuJu Smith-Schuster both led the Steelers' receivers in snaps with 62 each. Tight end Vance McDonald played 49 snaps and slot receiver Ryan Switzer played 49. Second-year receiver James Washington was on the field for 36 snaps, rookie Diontae Johnson 25 and Johnny Holton eight.
Smith-Schuster finished with six catches for 78 yards, but he had just two catches for 26 yards in the first half as the Patriots built a 20-0 lead. Switzer finished with six receptions, as well, but for just 29 yards, while Johnson had three receptions for 25 yards. Washington had two catches for 51 yards, but that came on six passes thrown his way, while Holton failed to catch a pass on his two targets.
That distribution of playing time could change in the weeks moving forward, but Moncrief, Smith-Schuster and McDonald are expected to continue to be the starters.
But the young guys could push for more playing time as the season moves on.
"That's a process that we're going to go through, particularly at the early stages of this season, every week. Not in reaction to what transpired in-stadium Sunday night. It's just the nature of this thing as you harden up your division of labor and find your personalities at the early stages of this thing," Mike Tomlin said.
And the quarterback needs to play better, as well.
While there were a number of drops, Roethlisberger also missed on his share of throws.
"I'm only going to focus on the quarterback play because that is what I can control. The quarterback has got to get better," Roethlisberger said.
There's a track record for that happening. Roethlisberger has typically followed a bad game with a good one.
For example, when the Steelers scored just three points in a 34-3 loss at Philadelphia in Week 3 in 2016, Roethlisberger completed 22 of 27 passes for 300 yards and five touchdown passes the following week at home against the Chiefs.
"It's not like we have to go back to the drawing board and start scratching stuff off and 'Where do we go from here?'" Roethlisberger said. "We all need -- starting with myself -- to play better. It's nothing drastic on anyone's plate. It's one game. We played maybe the best team in football at their place."
That was one of his messages to his receiving corps.
"Just make plays. Keep being in the right spot. Step up," he said. "If I deliver the ball where it needs to be delivered, we can make plays. We've all got a clean slate this week. I'm going to throw it to the guy that's open and hopefully we'll make plays this week."
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
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