There are two ways to look at the Steelers’ 2015 season, and coach Mike Tomlin prefers the less sympathetic version.
On one hand, the Steelers could take solace in the fact that they finished 10–6 and sent Cincinnati out the door once again with an early playoff exit in the AFC Wild Card round despite boatloads of significant injuries to the team’s high-powered offense. On the other, though, is a franchise with annual Super Bowl or bust expectations, a perceivably shrinking window because of the age and wear and tear of franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and a no-nonsense coach whose next excuse for why something went wrong will be his first.
“We go into the journey with that understanding, that it’s going to be difficult, that’s it’s going to be a fight, that a fight is going to be required,” Tomlin says. “We appreciate the support, but at the same time we set out to be world champion. That was our goal. We meant it.”
The Steelers will mean it again in 2016, and there’s reason to believe they’ll have a chance to make good on it, especially if they stay just a little bit healthier than they did a year ago.
The Steelers are poised to be electric on offense once again in 2016, but they’ll have to do it without a significant piece from last year’s third-ranked group.
High-flying wide receiver Martavis Bryant is gone for the season because of another drug-related suspension. It’s his second in as many seasons and so much more of a blow than last year’s, which cost him four games. His top-end speed and size can’t truly be replaced, but the Steelers will need others from the group, Markus Wheaton in particular, to pick up the slack and account for the nearly 70 yards per game Bryant amassed in 2015. Darrius Heyward-Bey stepped up during Bryant’s suspension last year, and he’ll be called on again to serve a key role in Pittsburgh’s offense, which is at its best when three or more receivers are in the open field providing Roethlisberger with multiple options and preventing excessive coverage on top target Antonio Brown. Second-year wide receiver Sammie Coates, who left a minimal imprint as a rookie, stayed in Pittsburgh throughout the offseason to train and knows he’ll need to be better in 2016.
The Steelers provided a much clearer answer to the vacancy left by tight end Heath Miller, who retired after 11 consistent seasons. Ladarius Green, the team’s most notable free-agent signing, is coming into his prime after four seasons with the Chargers. He adds a different, big-play element to the position that Miller, reliable as he was, didn’t provide near the tail end of his career.
The return of Le’Veon Bell, who missed the second half of 2015 with a knee injury, and Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey should do wonders for a running game that ranked middle of the pack in 2015. Veteran DeAngelo Williams, in a revival of a 2015 season, certainly did his best to carry the load in Bell’s absence, but the versatility, mix of speed and power and every-down threat Bell provides is matched by few in the NFL.
None of the above matters, of course, unless Roethlisberger is behind center. The 13th-year veteran was battered and bruised from start to finish in 2015, as the four-time Pro Bowler battled significant injuries to his knee, foot and throwing shoulder, the last of which he powered through in a gritty effort against the Broncos in the AFC Divisional Round. If there’s a cumulative effect to all of these injuries, Roethlisberger has done a great job of hiding it, as the last two seasons have been his most statistically prolific. With Roethlisberger starting last year, the Steelers averaged better than 340 passing yards per game. Without him, the number dropped to 177.
The time is now for the defense to pay dividends on all of the early-round picks Pittsburgh’s front office has poured into it.
Counting this year’s draft, the Steelers have used five of their last six first-round picks and all of their first- and second-round picks in the last three drafts on defensive players. There have been no outright misses in the group, but each one finds himself in a vital role on a defense that continues to be tough against the run but has struggled mightily against the pass.
The front seven is in decent shape with minimal turnover from last year’s squad. The loss of nose tackle Steve McLendon was mitigated by the third-round selection of Javon Hargrave, and the Steelers are strongest at the ends with Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. They are sound at inside linebacker with Ryan Shazier and veteran Lawrence Timmons, too — two big reasons why the Steelers ranked fifth against the run in 2015. Jarvis Jones, a first-round pick in 2013 who has been a relative disappointment, is entering a prove-it season after a 2015 campaign that showed flashes of promise. His performance, coupled with the development of last year’s first-round pick, outside linebacker Bud Dupree, will dictate just how much this group can overcome a work-in-progress secondary.
There’s only one way to go for the defensive backfield after a season in which it surrendered a whopping 271.9 passing yards per game — third-worst in the NFL. The losses to the Steelers’ back end — Brandon Boykin, Will Allen and Antwon Blake — could be considered addition by subtraction if Pittsburgh’s latest injection of young talent pans out. Top pick Artie Burns was among the rawest cornerbacks selected in the early rounds, but he’ll likely be learning on the fly on the opposite side from William Gay. Still reeling from the retirement of future Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu and dissatisfied with the performance of Shamarko Thomas last year, Pittsburgh drafted Maryland’s Sean Davis in the second round and has hopes for him to step right up next to strong safety Mike Mitchell. The X-factor in the group is Senquez Golson, who is essentially a third rookie who could hold a prominent role in the secondary. Golson, a second-round pick who missed all of 2015 with a shoulder injury, could be the answer at the nickel corner spot.
One year after dealing with some adversity at kicker, the Steelers were planning on holding a kicking competition between veteran Shaun Suisham and Chris Boswell entering the 2016 season. But that was before the team released Suisham on June 24 due to a setback from the ACL he tore in the Hall of Fame game prior to last season. That leaves the job to Boswell, who the Steelers stuck with after burning through handful of replacements after Suisham got hurt. Boswell was more than solid, making all but three of his 32 field goal attempts including going 11-for-14 from 40-plus. Australian punter Jordan Berry is coming off a solid debut season, and the Steelers are in great hands in the return game with Brown on punts and Wheaton on kicks.
The Steelers’ version of limping to the finish line in 2015 saw them a play away from taking down the eventual Super Bowl champions on the road and advancing to the AFC Championship Game. Health in the NFL is as unpredictable as it gets; but if the Steelers, thanks to one of the league’s most dangerous offenses and a just-good-enough defense, enter the home stretch of 2016 in just a little bit better shape than the previous year, then there’s every reason to believe they’ll be back atop a tough AFC North division. And they’ll once again be a threat to represent the conference in the Super Bowl.