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Big Ben and Antonio Brown, Bolts' pass rush, Eric Berry's impact

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With Week 15 of the 2017 season upon us,'s network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

-- How Frank Gore's chase for greatness is motivating the Colts.

-- What makes Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram so terrifying.

-- Eric Berry's invaluable input on the Chiefs' defense.

But first, Aditi Kinkhabwala inspects the chemistry fueling an electric partnership ...

PITTSBURGH -- This one wasn't a touchdown.

This one was just a pass, from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown. The Steelers were down by two points to the rival Ravens with about a minute to play. It was third-and-4 from the Pittsburgh 36-yard line, and the 35-year-old Roethlisberger launched the ball.

It would go for a 34-yard completion. It would set off the frenzied Heinz Field crowd in the latest hours of Sunday, and it would set up the game-winning, AFC North title-securing field goal. But before any of that happened, before the ball even landed in Brown's hands, the 29-year-old uber-receiver was grinning his famous, sparkly-toothed grin.


"Nope," Roethlisberger said, some 65 hours after the play. "I was probably smiling when the ball was snapped."

Ben Roethlisberger has thrown touchdowns to 43 different players in his storied 14-year career.

He won his second Super Bowl on the most beautiful of balls, lofted over three defenders and into his receiver's hands in the back right corner of the end zone. In 2014, he had back-to-back games with six touchdown passes, and this past Sunday, he spread 506 yards all over the Steelers roster, becoming the first NFL player ever to throw for 500 yards three times. He's always been big, always been strong and always had a rocket arm. One-time Steeler Mike Wallace (fourth on the list of players to catch touchdown passes from Roethlisberger, with 30, including playoffs) said, "If you can't catch a ball from Ben, you can't catch a ball from anybody."

Fair enough.

But with Antonio Brown, there's something different. Somewhere in the eight years since Brown entered the NFL, at a moment that neither can identify right now, he and Roethlisberger hit upon a connection that is unlike any in the game today. And not just because of the numbers, though they are sufficiently gaudy: 734 receptions, 10,046 yards and 61 touchdowns together. It's more because of the nuance. Because of the way they read each other, the way they improvise in concert, the way they both know -- before anybody else -- when it's time to smile.

"I just think there's so much chemistry between us, just body languages and looks," Roethlisberger said. "There's so many things that happen in a game that are non-verbal between him and I that people would never have a clue about."

Or ever be able to replicate, second-year Steelers receiver Eli Rogers said. Roethlisberger built an immediate rapport with Rogers, who aspires to become one of his quarterback's go-to throws. But with Brown, Rogers said, "That's like a [romantic] relationship. A lot of it is time together, but there's also something more."

It's something that, on the surface, seems unlikely. Brown and Roethlisberger have lockers in far corners of the Steelers locker room, the receiver next to the team's linebackers, the quarterback surrounded by his offensive linemen and rookies he wants to mentor.

One is from Miami, the other is from small-town Ohio. One is a brand-building money-maker and social media maven, the other, well, is not.

"They're definitely polar opposites in personality," Wallace, now with the Ravens, said this week, with what could only be described as a guffaw. But then, he quickly said, on the field, it doesn't matter one whit. On the football field, Wallace said, they're the "same" personality.

"They're both savages," he said.

Roethlisberger says he sees a similarity between Brown and Hines Ward (second on the list of Roethlisberger's touchdown-pass recipients, with 47). He said he always felt if the ball was anywhere inside the 7- or 8-yard line, Ward would find a way to get in the end zone.

"We used to laugh, 'Man, that guy, he'll run people over, he'll drag people.' He just sensed the end zone and he wanted to score touchdowns," Roethlisberger said. "Well, AB's kind of the same way, in the sense that, he loves his catches, he loves his touchdowns, he wants to make plays, so you know he's going to fight."

Roethlisberger's security in that is apparent in the windows he'll throw into for Brown. Though not particularly big (5-foot-11, 181 pounds), Brown is exceptionally strong (see: last year's Christmas Day game-winning touchdown against the Ravens) and catches the ball in traffic exceptionally well. Patriots safety Devin McCourty, who's readying to take on the Steelers this weekend in a showdown with the AFC's top seed likely on the line, said "that's the thing that's so tough about the two of them. Ben has no problem firing in tight areas for him, because he knows AB will come down with the ball, or no one will."

Wallace played with Ward at the end of Ward's career and with Brown at the start of Brown's, and he said the ferocity McCourty described fits both. The difference with Roethlisberger and Brown, Wallace said, is "they're always on the same page. They're always in sync."

"Except for when AB threw the water cooler," Wallace said with a laugh, referencing a much-dramatized mini-meltdown in Week 4 of this season.

Roethlisberger's trust in his receivers is not singular to Brown. Santonio Holmes, who caught the aforementioned fade in the back right corner of the end zone in Super Bowl XLIII -- the one with time winding down, and three defenders in the immediate vicinity, that turned him into a Super Bowl MVP -- said the Steelers never, not once, ever connected on that play in practice.

The way Holmes told it, he and Roethlisberger developed it in the offseason, after a conversation in which Roethlisberger asked Holmes where his ideal pass would land. They officially put it in their menu of plays at the start of the playoffs and proceeded to fail at running it.

"I'd drop it. Or it would be batted away. Or overthrown. We just could never get it right," Holmes said. But then, in the final play of the season, on the biggest stage, despite it never working, Roethlisberger barked out that play.

"I don't know if it was as much about the play as it was trusting that guy," Roethlisberger said this week, even as he admitted he didn't remember that the play never actually worked before. "There's a lot of plays that the concept of I don't like [but] that we're still going to call or run because I trust the guy that's doing it."

It's something, to be certain, Roethlisberger shows with many a player. In a rookie year when he didn't even play the first six weeks of the season, Martavis Bryant (15 total Roethlisberger touchdowns) still connected with Roethlisberger for nine touchdowns. In his 12-year career, Jerricho Cotchery caught 37 total touchdowns; 13 of them came in the three years he played with Roethlisberger.

And witness the 43 total touchdown catchers: Aaron Rodgers, who ranks 10th (one spot behind Roethlisberger) on the all-time passing touchdowns list, has only connected with 30 players for scores. Philip Rivers, who was drafted the same year as Roethlisberger and is two spots ahead of him on the all-time passing touchdowns list, has thrown touchdowns to 36 players.

And so while, yes, Brown is in many ways a self-made superstar whose work ethic is regularly celebrated, and Roethlisberger is a player who himself has never pretended to be a film rat, Wallace says it's the quarterback who deserves a little more credit for doing the things that go unnoticed. For cultivating pass catchers. For having faith to go back to a player who dropped a ball, for giving guys a chance to fight for balls and for being willing to risk an interception.

"It's not always supposed to be throw an 'O' and catch an 'X,' " Holmes said. "In backyard football, it was, 'If you get open, I'm going to throw you this football, and you better get going.' That part of football has never left Roethlisberger, and that's what I loved about playing with him. The game we played as little kids was about having fun, and that's how he still is."

Roethlisberger hasn't, until recent years, put up the kind of numbers to land himself in the MVP conversation. Even this year, it's Brown whose potential candidacy is running afire. But Roethlisberger truly seems unbothered. After some early-season blips and a stretch of offseason drama, the Steelers have settled in. They've had a few cardiac performances of late (needing four game-winning field goals in the last five weeks), but they've won eight straight. And Roethlisberger most definitely has his swagger back.

He joked in the aftermath of the Ravens game with a reporter who questioned how much he threw to Brown, saying, "Who wouldn't?" He also shot back, when it was suggested that the corner he'd picked on that night had enjoyed a pretty good year, that he and Brown had, too.

"I think when you've worked long enough with somebody, you're going to naturally form tendencies, you're going to form bonds, relationships, looks, an understanding of that person," Roethlisberger said of his connection with Brown. "But I also think it's just two special guys.

"I trust him that he's going to make a play and I trust that I'm going to make a throw."

And smile the whole way through.


INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: Gore's climb up the all-time list fueling teammates. Colts running back Frank Gore has been in the NFL for 13 years -- and last week's game against the Bills marked his first ever game in the snow. It's something he said he'll tell his kids about. He'll also tell them that, in that snow, at the age of 34, he carried the football 36 times for 130 yards.

After Thursday night's game against the Broncos, Gore had 13,858 career rushing yards. That's good for fifth on the all-time list -- and he has Curtis Martin (in fourth with 14,101) in his sights. Chasing down and passing Hall of Famers (this year, he's passed Eric Dickerson, Jerome Bettis and LaDainian Tomlinson) continues to push Gore toward a 14th NFL season in 2018.

"If I said no, I'd be lying," Gore told me earlier in the week. "You see yourself getting closer, why not try and go get it? You know what I'm saying? Because when you're done, it's over with, you know?"

The Colts are 3-11 and don't have much to play for with two games remaining. But Gore (793 yards through 14 games) could notch his 10th 1,000-yard season. Helping Gore get to 1,000 is something that can motivate a team.

"Absolutely," Colts head coach Chuck Pagano told me earlier in the week. "Our guys would love to get him to 1,000. They'd love to get him to No. 4 from 5 on the all-time rushing [list]."

Gore told me he knows he can't play forever. But as long as his body feels good and he can continue to train the way he always has, he doesn't appear to be looking to stop. Pagano probably best summed up where Gore stands right now physically.

"He looks fresh as a damn daisy," Pagano told me. "He looks like a freshman in college. You know, 36 carries in that snow. Are you kidding me? God almighty. He's a warrior, and he takes great care of himself. I mean, he's unbelievable. Guys are off Tuesday [and, on a short week, they're off] Monday, we come in and have a special teams meeting, and he's the first guy here all the time. He's on the treadmill, he's on the stairmaster, the elliptical, he's doing extra conditioning. I mean, he takes care of himself, and he does a great job of it. Nobody loves the game more than Frank Gore. Man, that guy has more passion ... It's oozing out of him."

-- James Palmer

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KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Chargers pose serious challenge to O-line. The Chiefs' offensive line picked the perfect time to elevate its level of play. After dominating the Raiders last week -- and helping rookie running back Kareem Hunt reach the 100-yard mark in rushing for the first time since Week 5 -- the unit must face a Chargers defense led by dynamic pass rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram.

"They're, as a tandem right now, playing, in my opinion, probably the best in the league, as far as bookend guys," Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said. "When you have two guys playing in the style that they play, a lot of spin moves, a lot of games that they do, they create [rushing] lanes by doing that. Then, on top of that, they're just full of energy. They're very successful this year."

-- Jeffri Chadiha

Berry leading the D from the sideline. When I walked into the Chiefs' locker room after their win over the Raiders last Sunday, the first person I saw was Eric Berry. Berry, who suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in Week 1 against the Patriots that ended his season, was in street clothes talking with teammates about what he'd seen -- and what they should have seen, too -- in the game against Oakland.

The Chiefs believe that, during home games -- Berry doesn't travel to road games -- there is a different mood with their unquestioned leader around.

"It adds a little juice," linebacker Reggie Ragland told me. "He also gives us talks before we leave for road games, too. But anytime you have a guy like that on the sideline, always making sure you stay focused and into the game, you need that. And he's a great leader. And I wish he was out there playing with us."

I'm told Berry is moving around pretty well, that he's recovering nicely and will be back next season. But right now, all he can do as the Chiefs come down the stretch of the 2017 campaign is try to use his ridiculous football IQ to help his teammates.

"Man, Eric is always talking to me," Ragland said at his locker. "With me being the Mike linebacker, he always comes up to me and is, like, asking me during the week, 'What are their favorite routes? What do they like to run?' He puts me on the spot in front of guys on the team. That's the type of guy I'm glad we have in our locker room. He keeps everybody on their toes."

-- James Palmer



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