PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers laughed along with Martavis Bryant a week ago as the talented but erratic wide receiver downplayed reports he requested a trade.
It’s not quite so funny anymore.
Bryant stayed home on Monday with an illness. The timing looked considerably curious after Bryant defended himself on social media and took a shot at rookie teammate JuJu Smith-Schuster following another ineffective performance in an otherwise dominant victory over Cincinnati.
Bryant was limited to one carry for 2 yards and one reception for 3 yards while splitting snaps with Smith-Schuster in Pittsburgh’s 29-14 victory. Seven games into his return from a yearlong suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, Bryant has 18 receptions for 234 yards and a score, well off the numbers he posted while becoming one of the NFL’s premier big-play threats in 2014 and 2015.
After an Instagram user claimed Bryant was being ignored by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Bryant posted — and then promptly deleted — from his verified account a comment in which he claimed Smith-Schuster is “no where near better than me.”
Bryant amended it later to call Smith-Schuster a “great talent” while adding “I just wants mine period point blank.”
Smith-Schuster, who scored his third touchdown of the season on a 31-yard catch-and-run in the second quarter against the Bengals, said he spoke to Bryant and didn’t take Bryant’s frustrations personally.
“I understand where he’s coming from,” Smith-Schuster said. “If I was in his shoes, I put myself in his shoes. There’s only one ball and so many athletes on the field. It’s tough.”
At 20, Smith-Schuster is the youngest player in the league. Yet he’s played long enough to understand the careful balance of egos involved, particularly on an offense as loaded as the Steelers (5-2), who are in firm control of the AFC North as the season nears the midway point.
“Hopefully we do get him the ball more, we do feed him,” Smith-Schuster said. “He’s a great athlete. I would like him to be on our team and moving forward I think he’s going to be big for us.”
Bryant was in 2014 and 2015, when he caught 14 touchdowns over 21 games while helping the Steelers to consecutive playoff berths.
Then the suspension hit in March 2016 and Bryant spent a year on his own, getting his life in order while living in Nevada. Bryant has said and done all the right things in his return, yet at this point his frustration appears to be bubbling over.
When the Steelers were upset at home by Jacksonville earlier this month, Bryant pointed out he was getting open but the ball was going elsewhere. Then the reports of a trade surfaced following a potentially season-turning road victory in Kansas City — a game in which Bryant caught two passes for 27 yards and earned praise from coach Mike Tomlin for his role as a blocker in the running game.
Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley called an end-around for Bryant on the first snap against the Bengals in what looked like a peace offering of sorts. Bryant jogged to the sideline after the play while Smith-Schuster ran on, a pattern that repeated throughout the game.
When Roethlisberger did look deep for Bryant down the left sideline in the third quarter, Bryant appeared unaware the ball was on its way until it was out of reach.
It ultimately didn’t matter on an afternoon in which the Steelers held Cincinnati to all of 19 yards in the second half to win going away.
Yet, with Bryant’s gear hanging neatly in his locker, his teammates were left trying to explain how another Monday arrived with another off-the-field dust-up.
“That’d be too easy (if there was no drama),” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “We have a good group of guys that’s not going to get deterred going over stuff like this.”
The NFL trade deadline is next Tuesday and moving Bryant doesn’t make much sense for the Steelers even if Bryant’s production dips.
If he runs afoul of the substance abuse policy one more time, the ensuing discipline could effectively end his NFL career. That’s a significant risk for any team that would consider acquiring him in a trade.
Besides, the Steelers still believe Bryant can make an impact even if he’s not catching the ball. He still draws extra attention when he runs deep, opening things for others. It may not be the path Bryant envisioned, but it is one Pittsburgh would be just fine with him following.
“There’s only one ball,” Smith-Schuster said. “It’s hard to spread it around. At the end of the day, we all got to focus on the bigger picture.”