PITTSBURGH (AP) — Ben Roethlisberger wasn't being cruel or unnecessarily harsh. The Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback had just seen enough — or not enough, to be accurate — out of wide receiver Martavis Bryant that he felt it was time to speak up.
Two weeks and two largely listless performances on the eve of the playoffs isn't what Roethlisberger wanted to see out of the remarkably talented if still occasionally inconsistent Bryant. So Roethlisberger issued what he called a "challenge" during his radio show on Tuesday, saying it was time for Bryant to "toughen up."
There was no edge in Roethlisberger's voice as he repeated it in so many words as the Steelers (10-6) prepare for a trip to Cincinnati on Saturday night in the wild-card round.
"I just felt like we need him," Roethlisberger said. "I love that guy like a little brother and just wanted him to know we needed him to step up."
Something that — when it happens — gives Pittsburgh arguably the best trio of receivers in the NFL in Bryant, All-Pro Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton. Brown is the record-setting road-runner and perennial Pro Bowler. Wheaton is the versatile everyman and Bryant is perhaps the most athletically gifted of the bunch. His 6-foot-3 frame and seemingly effortless speed make him a matchup nightmare for opponents.
They do, anyway, when Bryant is engaged and on the field. He spent most of last Sunday's win over Cleveland on the sideline with what coach Mike Tomlin called a minor neck injury but could also have doubled as a momentary benching after Bryant — who was slowed all week by an illness — was beat out by Browns defensive back Jordan Poyer for a Roethlisberger pass in the first quarter.
"Oftentimes, when young guys don't get an opportunity to practice, they lack a little detail in play," Tomlin said.
Details that Bryant understands he should have ironed out nearing the end of his occasionally brilliant second season.
"I'm still balling," Bryant said. "You have your ups and you have your downs. It's about how you bounce back. I'm going to be ready to go."
Good thing, because the Steelers need him with the running game almost certainly limited. DeAngelo Williams was still in a walking boot Thursday dealing with a bum right foot, leaving the running game in the largely inexperienced hands of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman.
To win in Cincinnati for the 15th time in 18 tries, Pittsburgh will have to do it on Roethlisberger's right arm, one that has developed a fondness for chucking it deep to Bryant and letting Bryant — lovingly referred to as an "alien" by some — be Bryant.
Bryant was a supernova when thrust into the starting lineup in Week 7 as a rookie. He scored eight times in 10 games, including a 94-yard sprint against the Bengals that helped kickstart Pittsburgh's run to the AFC North title. He missed the first five games of this season — four while serving a suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy and another after getting nicked up when he returned to practice — only to make another dazzling entrance. He caught a pair of second-half touchdowns from Landry Jones to ignite a rally against Arizona on Oct. 18 and went over 100 yards in romps over Cleveland and Indianapolis.
All of which made his lethargic play of late all the more frustrating to Roethlisberger, who communicated frequently with Bryant during the receiver's suspension.
Roethlisberger called Bryant after calling him out over the air, a conversation Bryant insisted would remain between he and his quarterback. Not that it matters. Consider the message received.
"What he said was good for me," Bryant said. "I needed that. I'm glad he did it. And like I said, I'll be ready to go come Saturday."
Not that he has much of a choice.
"Anytime it's coming from (Roethlisberger), you understand he's only saying it because it's in your best interest," linebacker Arthur Moats said. "He understands what kind of player Martavis is and what he's capable of doing. When he says something like that, it's nothing against him personally. It's 'We need you out there so make sure you bring it.'"