PITTSBURGH — The Steelers are negotiating with the game’s best running back on a long-term contract and managing a tight salary cap that will likely require the release of multiple veterans.
Yet one of the biggest stories surrounding the team this week was the growing chatter involving Martavis Bryant, who wanted out of Pittsburgh at midseason only to reverse course with expressed optimism for 2018 after the playoff loss to Jacksonville.
After talking with several people around the league, there’s minimal buzz that the Steelers are actively shopping Bryant. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t at least listening, as NFL Network reports. The Steelers are smart enough to field calls on the talented receiver.
It’s important to prioritize this reality: Bryant and the Steelers have not had any discussions about a contract extension. Bryant is a free agent in 2019, and if both parties were in an ideal spot, the possibility of a short re-up or long-term pact could have been broached by now, even if the Steelers typically wait until the summer to finalize business.
Pittsburgh hasn’t made any overtures on a modest bridge contract, in part because they aren’t sure what they’ll get from him and also because Bryant doesn’t have plans to sign. He’s made clear he wants to be a No. 1 receiver, and that has to happen elsewhere. If you’re looking for a potential trade catalyst, that’s it.
The Steelers don’t want Bryant causing any problems in 2018.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if Bryant sat out offseason workouts to crystallize his frustration.
This awkward dynamic makes a trade plausible. Even if motivated to deal, though, the Steelers likely wouldn’t budge without a hefty draft-pick haul. The message Bryant received at the October trade deadline was that the team felt fair compensation in exchange for Bryant’s skill set was not available. The Steelers likely got offers for a fourth-round pick. That wasn’t enough.
A late-second-rounder or low-third could help the Steelers — who have been brilliant drafting receivers for much of the past decade — identify a new vertical threat. Perhaps the Buffalo Bills, who were trying to get involved last year, could oblige.
Since that’s no guarantee, trading Bryant breaks up a potent receiver triumvirate with clear roles defined: Antonio Brown the do-it-all superstar, Bryant the lanky deep threat and JuJu Smith-Schuster the inside-out option.
Smith-Schuster’s historic rookie year does give the Steelers draft flexibility. He looks ready to be a No. 2 receiver. Ben Roethlisberger averaged a 134.0 passer rating when targeting Smith-Schuster last season, according to Pro Football Focus. But how would Smith-Schuster respond to a full-time transition to the outside with Bryant gone? He looks up to the challenge, but the Steelers must ask and answer that question. With Eli Rogers recovering from a torn ACL, the Steelers could run dangerously thin at a crucial position.
The Steelers’ best course of action is likely to give Bryant the chance to maximize his potential in a motivating contract year. Bryant signing elsewhere in free agency would be a plus in the Steelers’ compensatory pick formula for the 2019 draft. The switch to coordinator Randy Fichtner could help free up Bryant with more targets.
Either way, Bryant will be performing with a different jersey for 2019 in mind, and the Steelers pretty much know it.
Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott takes blame for blowout loss to Arizona Cardinals
“I don’t think we can use that as an excuse,” Elliott said of not having Prescott because of a compound fracture and dislocated right ankle. “I’m just going to keep saying it over and over — I started the game out with two fumbles, gave the ball away and gave them all the momentum they need to go take off. I want to say I’m sorry and this one is on me. I need to be better.”
Elliott finished with 49 yards on 12 carries and caught a team-high eight passes but for just 31 yards. However, it was fumbles on back-to-back drives in the first and second quarters that changed the complexion of the game.
The first fumble came after catching a short pass from Andy Dalton on second down, but safety Budda Baker stripped the ball free and Jordan Phillips recovered. Eleven plays later Kyler Murray and Christian Kirk hooked up for a 6-yard flip for a touchdown.
Two plays into the next possession, Elliott fumbled again with Phillips poking the ball free at the Dallas 30. Five plays later, Kenyon Drake scored the Cardinals’ second touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
“I mean, when you’re fumbling every game obviously teams are going to lock in on it and go for it even more,” Elliott said. “That’s even more of a reason I need to figure it out, man. I don’t want to keep talking about it, but I’ve got to figure out a way to figure it out.”
When the Cowboys took the field after Elliott’s second fumble, Tony Pollard was the running back. When Elliott returned to the field after eight snaps, there was a murmur among the crowd.
“Every player that plays in this league, no different on our football team, if you don’t take care of the football, it does affect your opportunities,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “Tony got an opportunity and I thought he did some really good things with his opportunities.”
Elliott has lost a career-high four fumbles in six games and the opponents have turned every takeaway into a touchdown. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the other top-10 rushers have combined for three lost fumbles in nearly 900 fewer touches this season. Elliott has 133 touches, while the nine other backs have 1,014 touches.
“I’m giving the ball away,” Elliott said. “I wasn’t helping my team. I think they did the right thing and gave some of those reps to TP, but I can’t do that. I have to be a guy this team can lean on, especially at times like right now with so many of our starters hurt and not playing. So it’s not acceptable and I need to figure it out.”
Elliott said he focuses on keeping the ball tight in practice. The Cowboys do ball-handling drills every day in practice.
“I just got to have a short memory,” Elliott said. “I’ve got to get that behind me and play some good ball and get on a roll.”
Elliott has gone a career-long six games without a 100-yard outing. He had a five-game drought in Weeks 10-14 last season. He had not gone more than two games to open a season without a 100-yard game to his credit.
Some of that can be pinned on a defense that has struggled, but 84 of the 218 points the Cowboys have allowed this season have come off turnovers.
“He understands that. He knows that,” Dalton said. “Zeke’s going to get this thing fixed.”
He also knows he needs to get it fixed quickly.
“At the end of the day, Zeke is our bell cow, and we need to get it right,” McCarthy said. “He’s part of the plan. He’s going to be part of the success. We have to get it right. We have to take care of the football and that’s for everybody that touches the football on our team.”
Kyler Murray’s run of success at Dallas’ AT&T Stadium continues as Arizona Cardinals roll
AT&T Stadium is 41 miles from Murray’s hometown of Allen, Texas. He went 5-0 in high school there, including three straight state championships in Texas’ highest level of prep football; 1-0 in college after leading Oklahoma to a Big 12 championship; and now 1-0 in the NFL.
Murray made another memory Monday night.
He threw for 188 yards and two touchdowns on just 9-for-24 passing, including an 80-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Christian Kirk, the second of two touchdown passes to Kirk, who had 164 yards and six touchdowns in three games at AT&T Stadium while at Texas A&M. Murray also hit DeAndre Hopkins for a 60-yard pass in the fourth quarter.
“It’s special; I’m not gonna lie,” Murray told ESPN’s Lisa Salters after the game. “I tried to not make it about me all week, ’cause it’s not about me. It’s about my team. And we came out here and got the job done against a good Cowboys team. But … coming back home — I think anybody wants to get a win when you come back home, so I’m happy we did.
But it wasn’t just Murray who had a meaningful return to AT&T Stadium.
The last time Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury coached in AT&T Stadium was his last game at Texas Tech, a 35-24 loss to Baylor on Nov. 24, 2018.
On Monday, when the Cardinals’ offense couldn’t find its rhythm early in the game, Murray took it upon himself to make something happen.
He had runs of 15 and 10 before converting a fourth-and-1 with an 11-yard run. He finished with 74 rushing yards and a touchdown, which was his 10th rushing touchdown since the start of 2019, his rookie season. That was second most among quarterbacks in that stretch behind Buffalo’s Josh Allen, who has 12.
Monday was the fifth time this season that Murray had a passing and rushing touchdown, the most in the first six games of a season in NFL history. It was also the sixth time since the start of last season that Murray had a passing and rushing touchdown, the second most during that stretch.
Murray also became the third player in league history with 30 passing and 10 rushing touchdowns in the first 25 games of his career. He did it in 22 games, tying with Daunte Culpepper for the quickest to do it.
It got to a point Monday night that the Cardinals were seemingly able to do what they pleased on both sides of the ball.
Kirk had 2 catches for 86 yards and 2 TDs. Hopkins finished with 73 yards on two catches. Running back Kenyan Drake had 169 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries.
The Cardinals forced Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott to fumble twice and scored on both possessions, which were on short fields. The first was caused by safety Budda Baker, who also had his first career interception and a sack, and was recovered by Jordan Phillips, who forced the second one which was recovered by cornerback Byron Murphy Jr.
Outside linebacker Haason Reddick had two sacks in place of Chandler Jones, who was put on injured reserve last week after undergoing surgery to repair a torn biceps.
Dallas Cowboys right guard Zack Martin exits with concussion
ARLINGTON, Texas – The Dallas Cowboys have lost another starter on their offense with Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin suffering a concussion with 5:07 left in the first quarter against the Arizona Cardinals.
He was ruled out as the second half began with the Cowboys trailing 21-3.
Martin spent a considerable amount of time in the blue tent getting looked at by the medical staff. He headed to the locker room at the start of the second quarter.
The Cowboys are playing their first game without quarterback Dak Prescott, who suffered a compound fracture and dislocated right ankle in last week’s win against the New York Giants. The Cowboys placed Prescott on injured reserve Monday, and he faces a 4-6 month recovery period.
A once-vaunted offensive line is now gutted. Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick retired in the offseason. Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith had season-ending neck surgery last week. Right tackle La’el Collins is on injured reserve because of hip surgery and did not play a down this season.
Joe Looney, who replaced Frederick, is on injured reserve with a knee injury but expected to return. In the season opener, the Cowboys lost tight end Blake Jarwin to a torn ACL.
The Cowboys’ current offensive line, from left to right is: Brandon Knight (undrafted free agent, 2019), Connor Williams (second-round, 2018), Tyler Biadasz (fourth round, 2020), Connor McGovern (third round, 2019) and Terence Steele (undrafted free agent, 2020). McGovern entered the game with two offensive snaps in his career.
The Cowboys scored a season-low three points in the first half.
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