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Posted Feb 8, 2017

Passing game delivered, but questions linger.

When at its best in 2016, the Steelers’ passing game was as good as necessary.

Against Dallas on Nov. 13, the Steelers got the ball back with 1:55 left in the fourth quarter, trailing, 29-24, and 75 yards from the touchdown they had to have. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s response was to hit four straight passes to four different players for a combined 60 yards. The march was finished off with a fake-spike pass to wide receiver Antonio Brown for a 15-yard TD and a 30-29 lead with 42 seconds left in regulation.

And on Dec. 25 against Baltimore, Roethlisberger took over with 1:18 remaining and the Steelers needing a field goal to tie and a touchdown to take the lead. This time, he hit five different pass-catchers while completing seven consecutive attempts to the Ravens’ 4-yard line. From there an actual spike stopped the clock with 13 seconds left, enough time to hit Brown for the touchdown that won the AFC North Division championship.

The Steelers’ No. 5 rank in passing in 2016 doesn’t do justice to such dramatics.

But the number, down from No. 2 in 2014 and No. 3 in 2015, reflects a lineup that had to work around moving parts due to injury and a season-long search to develop a consistent No. 2 threat opposite Brown. And those were complications that potentially prevented the Steelers’ passing game from being as good as it otherwise might have been.

Roethlisberger’s 29 touchdown passes, the sixth-best figure in the NFL, were caught by 12 different players. But only one of them had more than three receiving TDs (Brown had 12, one shy of his franchise-record 13 in 2014).

The Steelers also got 100-yard receiving games from Brown, wide receiver Sammie Coates, wide receiver Eli Rogers and tight end Ladarius Green. But only Brown (four times) came up with such a game more than once.

The offensive line and Roethlisberger’s developing commitment to getting the ball out of the pocket quickly when necessary contributed mightily to the Steelers allowing only 21 sacks (second in the NFL behind the Raiders’ 18).

So protection would appear to be the least of the Steelers’ concerns.

But there’s still plenty to chew on this offseason as it relates to the passing game, including:

The No. 2 Option: Coates averaged 20.7 yards per catch, but caught just two regular-season passes for 14 yards after Oct. 9. Wide receiver Martavis Bryant, likewise, has take-the-top-off-the-defense combustibility. But Bryant is still awaiting reinstatement into the NFL after missing 2016 due to a suspension. Rogers was productive in his first season on the field but has been perceived as a fit in the slot as opposed to outside. And wide receiver Markus Wheaton had four catches in three games in an injury-shortened campaign and will become an unrestricted free agent on March 9.

Is the complement to Brown on the roster, or must the Steelers look elsewhere?

Green’s Anticipated Availability: He was what the Steelers anticipated as a down-the-seam tight end when he was on the field. But Green didn’t get there until Nov. 13 and he didn’t play again after suffering a concussion on Dec. 18 at Cincinnati.

To what extent can the Steelers count on Green in 2017?

Location, Location, Location: The splits on Roethlisberger’s 29 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions included 20 of the former and five of the latter at home, and nine TDs and eight INTs on the road.

That’s an inconsistency that doesn’t add up given the Steelers’ capability when the passing game is humming.