With Le’Veon Bell out for the first month of the season – and Martavis Bryant banned for the entire year – what are the expectations for the Steelers offense in 2016?
It’s great to be a Steelers fan. Except when it’s not.
Just as he was preparing to retake the throne as best running back in football, news broke Friday that Le’Veon Bell will be suspended four games for another violation of the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. Bell is said to have missed scheduled drug tests, which is equivalent to failing them.
While Bell’s suspension hasn’t officially been announced yet by the NFL – his appeal process is still underway – the chances of getting it overturned, even reduced, are virtually zero.
This is Bell’s second drug-related run-in with the NFL. He served a two-game suspension (originally set for four) last season for marijuana possession and DUI charges stemming from an arrest involving former teammate LeGarrette Blount.
The Steelers video game offense is perpetually stuck in the beta-testing phase. In addition to the month-long absence of Bell, the Steelers will be without Martavis Bryant for the entire 2016 season. Bryant was suspended a year without pay for, you guessed it, violating the NFL’s drug policy.
Not all hope is lost for Pittsburgh – the Steelers still flaunt Pro Bowl talent across the board – but offensive production is predicted to take a hit with the NFL’s most versatile running back and emerging deep threat receiver out. Holistically, how will the offense adjust?
Of course, Bell’s suspension will be less taxing on the Steelers offense in the long run. DeAngelo Williams surely will be able to carry the load in the first four weeks of the season, as he did for most of 2015. Behind him is Fitzgerald Toussaint, who was an unsung hero in last year’s playoffs besides for the infamous fumble in Denver.
The primary concern without Bell is receiving out of the backfield. Williams is no slouch in this regard, but the big-play ability that #26 brings is simply unmatched. The Steelers’ first four opponents in 2016 – the Redskins, Bengals, Eagles and Chiefs – all have strong pass rushes. D-Will and Toussaint will be relied upon to give Ben Roethlisberger a relief valve, as well as providing extra blocking. If last season was any indication, they’ll fill in just fine.
Bell’s relatively short suspension shouldn’t be disastrous for the Steelers. Week two’s contest against the Bengals is a bit worrisome, as Bell has been Cincy’s kryptonite for the past two years – which is why they always injure him.
A 3-1 record without Bell isn’t out of the question. A Super Bowl favorite should be able to defeat these teams without its star running back. Really, the Steelers record after four weeks may be more dependent on the play of the defense.
The lone bright side of Bryant’s suspension is that the Steelers know he’s out for the year. No appeal, no guesswork, no re-implementing him back into the offense.
Antonio Brown will continue to dominate. It’s just what he does. Behind him, however, is where weekly consistent becomes the question mark for the Steelers receiving corps.
2016 is going to be a make-or-break year for Markus Wheaton. He has improved steadily since joining the Steelers three years ago, but the Bryant suspension has propelled him into a full-time starting role. A 1,000 yard season for Wheaton is an absolute must, not just for his own development, but for the team’s.
With Heath Miller’s retirement, Ladarius Green and Jesse James will be called upon the start a new era at the tight end position. Green (6’6″) and James (6’7″) must put their size to use, particularly in the red zone. An elevated red zone touchdown rate makes all the difference in close games, and with these two monsters at their disposal, the Steelers have no excuses not to improve.
Many fans are expecting second-year receiver Sammie Coates to seamlessly take Bryant’s spot as the big play threat. While Coates’ physical prowess most closely resembles Bryant’s, he’s still two inches shorter and a bit slower.
Mind-blowing athleticism like Bryant’s cannot be fully replaced. Coates can, however, establish himself as a reliable number three and the guy looked to when a game breaker is needed. Coates flashed his potential in last year’s AFC Divisional round, and he should find more room to operate with secondaries zoned in on AB.
Ben Roethlisberger remains a top-tier quarterback. The Steelers offensive line has quietly become one of the most dominant groups in the NFL. Fresh and rising faces will be seeing their roles expand in 2016.
The suspensions of Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant are tough to swallow for the Steelers. But with so much untapped potential ready to take the field this season, expectations for the Steelers offense shouldn’t drop.
They may even get higher. ZING!