First Martavis Bryant, and now Le’Veon Bell. On Friday, ESPN’s Dan Graziano reported that because of a missed drug test, the Steelers star running back likely will be suspended for the first four games of the 2016 season. That would mean Pittsburgh will open the year without Bell and Bryant, whose repeated violations of the league’s substance-abuse policy have put the receiver on the shelf for the year. For anyone who enjoys watching an offense rain fire, the past five months have amounted to a cold shower; this fall was supposed to offer a chance to see exactly how much destruction the Steelers’ unit could bring, but that possibility seems to have been snatched away yet again.
December 7, 2014, was the first time we saw what Pittsburgh could do with all of its devastating pieces working in concert. Seven games into his NFL career, Bryant was starting to get it. Antonio Brown was most of the way through an all-time great season that earned him the Wide Receiver Belt during the position’s Golden Age. And Bell was in the midst of a campaign he’d finish with more than 2,200 total yards, 11 touchdowns, and status as a fantasy football darling. That afternoon, Bryant and Brown combined for 226 yards on 13 catches (including a 94-yard Bryant touchdown), while Bell added 185 with two scores on the ground. Pittsburgh pummeled the Bengals in Cincinnati, 42–21.
With Brown already locked up to a team-friendly extension and Bell and Bryant just beginning their careers, that December day felt like the start of a years-long Pittsburgh run as one of the scariest — if not the scariest — offenses in football. Sadly, that outing is one of the last instances we’ve seen the entire Steelers group play together. Over the past two years, Pittsburgh’s collection of offensive threats has shown flashes of the damage it could inflict, but mostly, they’ve been just that: flashes.
Since Week 15 of the 2014 season, the Steelers haven’t started and finished a single game with their full offensive arsenal. Bell returned from a two-game suspension in St. Louis in Week 3 last September, only to see Ben Roethlisberger leave the game with a sprained MCL. When Roethlisberger got back to the field against the Bengals in Week 8, Bell didn’t make it through a quarter and a half before shredding the ACL in his right knee after making a catch near the sideline.
There’s still reason to believe, though, that even with Bryant lost for the year and Bell likely out for a month, the Steelers will be able to weather the storm on offense. For anyone hoping to quell fears about Pittsburgh’s 2016 outlook, Bell’s knee is actually a good place to start. Coming off of major reconstructive surgery in November, the fourth-year back could benefit from having an extra month to prepare his body for the long haul. In each of the past two seasons, the Steelers have made it to the playoffs without their all-world rusher. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind bringing him with them to the postseason this winter.
Of course, those consecutive playoff runs are why Steelers fans should avoid panicking right now: The team knows how to survive in Bell’s absence. Pittsburgh finished third in offensive DVOA and fourth in rushing DVOA last season despite Bell seeing action in only six games, and it pulled that off in a variety of ways. DeAngelo Williams proved to be a more than capable replacement, averaging 4.5 yards per carry and punching in 11 touchdowns on the season. Williams, now 33, experienced a resurgence in his debut campaign in Pittsburgh, and that’s in part because he has always been pretty damn good. But it’s also because the Steelers’ offense is essentially heaven for a running back.
The play above is Pittsburgh’s first from scrimmage last September, in Week 1 against the Patriots. At almost every spot, the personnel on the field mirrors what we’ll see from the Steelers for the first month of the 2016 season. Both Bryant and Bell were suspended; the only real difference entering this fall is there have been a few changes on the offensive line. During the play, Williams presses the hole to the left before bouncing back the opposite way with almost no resistance. The Pats’ cornerback to that side of the field, Malcolm Butler, is straight-up face-guarding Brown, and safety Duron Harmon backpedals furiously at the snap despite there being no indication that a pass is coming.
As with a great 3-point shooter in basketball, a chunk of Brown’s value comes from his gravitational pull. Defensive backs — and entire defenses, for that matter — concern themselves with Brown first and everything else second. That helps create oceans of grass like the one Williams saw in Foxborough.
Gravity is nice, but any argument for why Pittsburgh should still be able to thrive without Bryant and Bell begins with what Brown can do when he’s actually thrown the ball. In Week 2 of last season, when the Steelers were missing Bryant and Bell, Brown tuned up the 49ers’ secondary for nine catches, 195 yards, and a touchdown on an absolutely ridiculous 17.7 yards per target (Sammy Watkins led the league last season at 10.9). Success against the Niners may not be the best barometer for a player’s value these days, but when a receiver turns a whole NFL defense into ash, the defense shouldn’t matter.
Over the course of last year, players filtered in and out of Pittsburgh’s offense. The Steelers lost vastly underrated left tackle Kelvin Beachum to an ACL injury six games into the fall, which combined with center Maurkice Pouncey’s season-long absence due to a fractured fibula to leave their line two starters down. While Roethlisberger’s knee was healing last October, the QB was spelled by a combination of Michael Vick, who threw for a combined 371 yards in three starts, and Landry Jones, who piled up four interceptions in just 55 passing attempts.
And in spite of all that, the Steelers still finished the 2015 season with the third-most efficient offense in football. Now, with Pouncey cleared to play and scary-athletic tight end Ladarius Green catching passes in the middle of the field, they’ll have two key pieces they didn’t have a year ago.
There’s a sinking feeling, though, given Bryant’s history of problems and Bell’s combination of suspensions, injuries, and looming contract negotiations — he released a rap song earlier this month in which he made it known he wants $15 million per season, a figure that’d make him the highest-paid running back in the NFL — that our initial aspirations for this Steelers group may become what one of the great what-ifs in recent memory. But for now, it’s only fantasy owners invested in Bell who should let this ruin their weekend.
In games that Roethlisberger started and finished last season, the Steelers failed to score 28 points just four times. At this point in his career, he’s become the sort of quarterback — like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning — who can mitigate any disaster happening around him. He’s mastered coordinator Todd Haley’s offense, and his play-extending, scrambling tendencies of old have given way to quick and efficient decision-making. He has more confidence in his scheme and skill-position players than maybe any other QB in the league. Losing Bryant and a likely month’s worth of Bell is bad news for anyone who loves points, but as long as Brown and Roethlisberger can stay healthy, the Steelers can still be a force in the AFC.