The Steelers’ high-powered offense was going to turn Heinz Field into the home of the Greatest Show on Grass in 2016.
Instead, it’s starting to look like the Greatest Show on Weed.
First Martavis Bryant was suspended for the 2016 season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. It will be his second suspension. He also sat out the first four games of the 2015 season.
Now, Le’Veon Bell quite likely will be forced to miss the first four games of the 2016 season for missing a drug test. Counting playoffs, that will make it 14 consecutive games that Bell has been unavailable to the Steelers when combining last season’s knee injury and this season’s impending suspension.
All that offseason euphoria about the Steelers’ offense carrying them to a seventh Super Bowl victory has come crashing down to earth.
Now that Bell has Steeler Nation in a foul mood with training camp set to begin Thursday, let’s take a look at five more things that could go wrong in 2016 and keep the Steelers from reaching the top of the Stairway to Seven.
Sammie Coates can’t fill Martavis Bryant’s shoes
The Steelers need a receiver not named Antonio Brown who can scare a defense. Martavis Bryant gave opponents plenty to worry about, but he’s out of the picture in 2016.
Sammie Coates is the popular choice to be that No. 2 receiver. After dressing for just seven games and catching one pass in his rookie season, Coates appeared to be on an upward trajectory in the postseason. He caught two passes for 61 yards in the playoff loss at Denver. The 2015 third-round draft pick is in better shape this offseason and has turned a lot of heads, but let’s face it, it’s hard to remember a case in which three catches have generated so much hype.
If Coates can do in pads what he did in the spring, he can flourish opposite Brown. If not, Brown will see a lot of double-teams.
Ladarius Green turns into a free-agent flop
If Coates doesn’t make a significant leap in 2016, the next best thing would be for Ladarius Green to have a breakout season in his first year as a Steeler.
Green is the centerpiece of the Steelers’ 2016 free-agent signings. The former Chargers tight end was brought in to replace the retired Heath Miller. The 6’6″, 240-pounder will bring more speed to the position, which would give the Steelers’ offense a weapon it’s never really had.
The 26-year-old Green has increased his receptions in each of his four seasons, but his career high in 2015 was a lackluster 37 catches. If Green has so much upside, then why did the Chargers keep 36-year-old tight end Antonio Gates and let Green get away?
Green hasn’t had a chance to work out in his new offense because he missed the Steelers’ offseason activities recovering from ankle surgery. If his absence extends into training camp, it’s time to worry.
Ryan Shazier can’t stay healthy
Ryan Shazier took a step forward in 2015, especially in the playoffs. He made nine tackles, forced two fumbles and recovered one of them in the Steelers’ wild-card win at Cincinnati.
If he picks up where he left off, the Steelers can build their defense around him. He needs to stay healthy, however. He’s missed 11 games so far in his two-year career.
If the Steelers raise the Lombardi Trophy for a seventh time in February, it will have more to do with the offense than the defense. But it would help if the defense improves. For that to happen, Shazier must become an impact defender who can stay on the field.
The Steelers miss Kelvin Beachum
Kelvin Beachum’s torn ACL in Week 6 of the 2015 season effectively ended his days as a Steeler. He signed a one-year contract with the Jaguars.
Alejandro Villanueva filled in admirably at left tackle, but the Steelers apparently aren’t sold on him. They brought in free agent Ryan Harris from Denver to compete with Villanueva for the job.
The 31-year-old Harris is nothing special. Pro Football Focus graded him as the No. 53 tackle out of 77 in 2015 via Pro Football Rumors. The best-case scenario for the Steelers is that Villanueva blossoms and beats out Harris. But if Villanueva already has hit his ceiling and Harris isn’t much better, the Steelers will miss Beachum.
Shoddy blind-side protection could lead to the worst of the worst-case scenarios.
Ben Roethlisberger’s body starts to break down
Ben Roethlisberger took so many cart rides off the field last season that he should have carried change to pay for the fare.
In 2015 Roethlisberger suffered an MCL sprain, a bone bruise in his knee, a foot sprain, a concussion and a separated shoulder. That litany of injuries caused him to miss four games.
On one hand, Roethlisberger showed in 2015 just how tough he is. The MCL sprain he suffered in St. Louis probably would have ended the season of most quarterbacks. The separated shoulder came in the wild-card game at Cincinnati, but Roethlisberger orchestrated a game-winning drive with essentially a noodle for an arm.
On the other hand, perhaps the beating Roethlisberger has taken in his career started to catch up with him in 2015 and 16-game seasons are a thing of the past. Roethlisberger has been sacked 439 times, more than any active quarterback. It’s a lot harder to get up from those sacks at 34 than it is at 24.
In 2013 and 2014, Roethlisberger played back-to-back 16-game seasons for the first time in his career. If he can make it three out of four in 2016, then the Super Bowl still can be in the Steelers’ sights even if the first four worst-case scenarios come true.
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