Brown’s issues with the Steelers boiled over before a vital Week 17 matchup.

Antonio Brown missed an important Week 17 game against the Bengals — and it may not have been because of an injury. Instead, the All-Pro wide receiver may have been held out of the game due to disciplinary issues that tie back to an increasingly volatile Steelers locker room.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staff writers Gerry Dulac and Ed Bouchette reported Monday Brown’s trip to the inactive list for what proved to be his team’s season finale wasn’t due to a balky knee like head coach Mike Tomlin told the press on Sunday. Instead, his absence was a disciplinary reaction that came after a week filled with missed team activities and an argument with an unnamed teammate.

While the Steelers were able to win without their star wideout, a sputtering offense made things much more difficult that expected against a spiraling Bengals team. While that gave Pittsburgh the victory it needed to stay alive in the playoff race, the Ravens nailbiting win over the Browns clinched the AFC North for Baltimore and all but eliminated the Steelers from playoff contention.

What did the reports say about Antonio Brown?

While Dulac and Bouchette don’t name who the confrontation was with, NFL Network scribe Aditi Kinkhabwala reported that multiple sources had told her Brown and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had “a little bit of a disagreement” during Wednesday’s practice. According to Mark Kaboly of The Athletic, Antonio Brown threw a ball towards Ben Roethlisberger before walking out of practice.

He did not attend practices the rest of the week, including Saturday’s walk-through practice, and skipped the Saturday night meeting at the team hotel. Brown never took the field for the start of the game against the Bengals and left Heinz Field at halftime, according to multiple sources.

From the Post-Gazette’s report:

Steelers receiver Antonio Brown did not play in the season-ending game against the Cincinnati Bengals because he elected to sit out practice last week after an unspecified heated dispute with a teammate, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has learned.

Several sources said the Steelers’ decision to not play Brown against the Bengals had nothing to do with any type of knee injury.

The disagreement occurred Wednesday morning during a routine walk-through practice that precedes their regular afternoon practice on the South Side. Brown became disgusted and threw a football in anger at one of his teammates, several sources said.

He did not attend Saturday’s walk-through practice and skipped the Saturday night meeting at the team hotel — the latest in missed meetings by the All-Pro receiver. Brown was never on the field for the start of the game against the Bengals and left Heinz Field at halftime, according to multiple sources.

Dulac and Bouchette’s report also suggested Brown showed up to the locker room on Sunday morning expecting to play, only to be shut down by Tomlin. This further annoyed teammates, who called Brown’s behavior “embarrassing” and “the worst I’ve seen.”

ESPN’s report gave more context to what Brown was emotional about:

Brown got upset that Roethlisberger wanted to run a hot read over again during a walk-through, so coaches sent another player to run the play, a source close to the situation told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. Brown got upset, left practice and talked with Roethlisberger afterward, telling the quarterback that he felt underappreciated and had issues with people in the organization, the source told Schefter.

However, Roethlisberger said the reports were blown out of proportion and that everything between Brown and him is fine — despite Brown not replying to any of his teammates’ texts in the past few days.

“That’s what baffling to me, people are making a big deal about a walkthrough on Wednesday, a fight between he and I,” Roethlisberger said on his weekly radio show on 93.7 The Fan. “If there was a blowup or something, I sure of heck didn’t see it. I’m not sure where that comes from.”

Former Packers receiver and current NFL Network analyst James Jones said that he has heard that Roethlisberger and Brown have a bit of a shaky relationship and Roethlisberger could be an antagonizer to Brown.

“I have talked to a couple people in the Pittsburgh Steelers organization and they told me this has been lingering on,” Jones said. “I’ve been told in meetings [Roethlisberger] would take shots at AB. Like, ‘I don’t got to throw you the ball,’ and things like that. Wednesday in practice, I heard he ran the wrong route, Big Ben threw the ball on the ground, said, ‘Get him out of here. Get somebody else in there,’ and that’s when AB was at his boiling point and that’s when he went off.”

Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner refused to discuss Brown’s absence after he missed Thursday’s team activities, an out-of-character response toward a player working through an injury, but a telling one for a healthy scratch from the mid-week practice. When Steelers officials were asked about potential discipline after Brown skipped Saturday’s walkthrough, they deflected those queries to Tomlin’s upcoming press conference.

NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that the Steelers are open to trading Brown and they will at the very least “listen to trade offers”.

Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Steelers president Art Rooney II said all options are on the table outside of outright releasing Brown this offseason. Rooney also said it would be “hard to envision” Antonio Brown on the roster when the Steelers report to camp.

What did Mike Tomlin say about Brown’s absence?

On Wednesday, Tomlin met with reports for his end-of-the-season press conference. He outlined what happened with Brown’s injury in the week leading up to the Bengals game. Tomlin said the wide receiver “expressed soreness in his lower body” on Wednesday, specifically his feet, ankle, and knee. On Thursday and Friday, Brown was still experiencing discomfort, so he was placed on the injury report and then was sent to get an MRI. Tomlin said that Brown did not end up going through with the MRI.

Tomlin said that Brown did not communicate with him on Friday evening and Saturday, as expected. It wasn’t until Sunday morning, when Brown’s agent Drew Rosenhaus reached out to Tomlin to let him know Brown was feeling better, that the team had any updates about Brown.

At that point, Tomlin told Brown that “the best thing was to be there and support his teammates.” Because Brown was MIA from Friday evening until Sunday morning, Tomlin said the team didn’t know the extent of his injury and that’s why he didn’t play.

“He was absent due to injury and lack of information,” Tomlin said.

The two spoke prior to the game, but they haven’t had any communication since. Tomlin added that he doesn’t know if Brown left the stadium during the game.

Tomlin said he “won’t speculate” about the possibility of trading Brown, but he did clarify there hasn’t been a formal request. He also said any discipline “will be handled appropriately.”

This isn’t the first time discord leaked through the seams of the Steelers’ locker room in 2018

Pittsburgh has courted drama throughout the season, though much of it came as a function of Le’Veon Bell’s year-long holdout in hopes of a lucrative long term contract. Bell’s absence put a strain on the rest of one of the league’s most talented offenses. While second-year back James Conner was able to pick up much of the slack, the club still struggled early and then spun out late as a 9-6-1 season ended without a playoff berth.

But while Bell may have been the focus of Pittsburgh’s locker room drama, Brown also made his issues with the franchise known throughout the season. A slow start led the All-Pro wideout to vent his frustrations both on the field and off. He wasn’t shy about expressing his concerns about Fichtner’s playcalling to his face in a Week 2 loss to the Chiefs:

The following day, he’d take to Twitter to respond to a Steelers’ PR staffer’s praise of Ben Roethlisberger and his role in the team’s success. His since-deleted Tweet was succinct: “Trade me let’s find out”

Both Brown and his agent Drew Rosenhaus would deny Brown wanted to be traded out of Pittsburgh, but the wideout’s discontent was clear. He’d skip team meetings the following Monday, though those came with Tomlin’s blessing. He returned to practice the following Wednesday after dealing with private discipline from Tomlin and the rest of the Pittsburgh coaching staff.

Despite reports that Brown requested to be traded after the latest dustup, that doesn’t appear to be the case, as Tomlin said:

What’s next for the Steelers and Brown?

When Brown was on the field, he was still an elite receiver. 2018 marked his sixth straight 1,200-yard season, and that kind of performance, and the $21 million dead money on his contract, would make him difficult to trade away — especially for a team so reliant on a bludgeoning aerial attack. It also gives him a little more leeway when it comes to getting away with locker room shenanigans, like in 2017 when he gave the Patriots some bulletin board material by recording Tomlin talking about New England in the locker room after a Divisional Round victory over the Chiefs.

Despite these issues, Brown had a typically great season. He caught 104 passes for 1,297 yards and 15 touchdowns — the 15 touchdowns were a career high. The seven-time Pro Bowler also passed the 10,000 yard milestone for his career. Brown’s 168 targets on the season ranked third behind Julio Jones (170) and Davante Adams (169).

Brown’s concerns about not getting the ball may have been valid. While JuJu Smith-Schuster’s ascendance left him as the Steelers’ most productive receiver, Brown was still the No. 1 target who drew double teams and allowed his fellow receivers to thrive. That passing threat also created space for Conner to thrive in a breakout sophomore campaign; he ran for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns in 13 games while serving as the Pepsi to Bell’s Coke.

And Brown’s absence appeared to play a role in Pittsburgh’s sluggish start in Week 17. The Steelers faced the league’s worst defense in a deficient Bengals team, but managed to score just 16 points in the process. Without Brown on the field, Smith-Schuster was limited to just five catches and 37 yards — though he did score the game’s only offensive touchdown.

Was that a function of Cincinnati finding the extra space to double down on Pittsburgh’s playmakers without Brown on the field? Was it due to Brown’s behavior affecting the rest of the team’s desire to play, as one unnamed player suggested to the Post-Gazette? Or did the Bengals just play a little harder with the chance to derail a rival’s playoff hopes on the line?

No one’s quite sure. But what is clear is that Brown and the Steelers will likely have to work through some issues if they’re going to reconcile for a happy and prosperous 2019.

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