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Steelers 2016: Next Season Up

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As the 2015 season ended under unfortunate circumstances, the Pittsburgh Steelers quickly turned the page to the next chapter, 2016.

Head coach Mike Tomlin has always carried a “next man up” attitude throughout his years with the Steelers, but it became the mantra of the team in 2015. Through suspensions and injuries, the Steelers faced adversity from their first snap to their last. One thing was for certain, there was always a plan to move forward, and expectations remained the same.

“I have the same expectations that I’ve had for 10 years,” Tomlin said. “We’re taking off on this journey with the potential of being the eventual world champions, and that’s what guides our approach to preparing this team.”   

The Steelers began 2015 with Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant serving suspensions due to prior violations of league policies. The absence of both players was a significant blow, but the Steelers had veteran leadership to rely on. DeAngelo Williams did a more than adequate job in filling in for Bell. When Bell returned to the lineup in Week 3, he didn’t miss a beat. He was well on his way to having a stellar season when he suffered an injury in Week 8 against the Cincinnati Bengals, ending his season.

The Steelers bounced back from several other injuries to key players—including Ben Roethlisberger—on two occasions. Roethlisberger missed several weeks after suffering a knee injury against the St. Louis (now Los Angeles) Rams. He would later suffer another injury against the Oakland Raiders, but returned the next week in a backup role after Landry Jones was injured.

The rollercoaster of injuries continued, but Pittsburgh won the necessary games it needed to make the postseason.

“The key is to stay healthy,” Roethlisberger said. “We’ve had a hard time doing that the last few years, but if we can stay healthy and be a selfless team, we’ll have a better chance.”

Heading into a new season, the Steelers find themselves with a case of déjà vu. Both Bell and Bryant are once again serving suspensions, Bryant's an entire year and Bell’s for three games. From a health standpoint, however, Bell appears as if he willl be ready to go when he returns in Week 4.

“I will definitely be ready to go,” he said. “I am confident in where I am right now. I feel like if we had a game tomorrow, I would be able to play.”

Bell went on to acknowledge tackling as being a big indicator of where he is in his progression.

The rest of the offense is poised to start the year off strong. Despite not having Bell until Week 4, Pittsburgh remains a Super Bowl contender, and has high hopes of being champions.

“If any of the 32 teams don’t expect to win a Super Bowl, there’s something wrong with them, so of course that’s our expectation,” Roethlisberger said. “We should never shy away from that.”

Antonio Brown leads a receiving corps that has tremendous promise, particularly Brown himself; however, Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey are known to have game-changing abilities. Second-year man Sammie Coates gave us a preview of what he can be capable of in the 2015 postseason—albeit a small sample size—but he should be ready to take major strides in 2016. Ladarius Green was brought in to replace the retired Heath Miller, but his health has been a concern since signing a multi-year deal with the team.

The return of Maurkice Pouncey is great news for the offensive line, which should mean overall improvement. However, a rough preseason for Alejandro Villanueva leaves questions surrounding the left tackle position. The Steelers brought in free agent Ryan Harris to compete, and could potentially be an upgrade from Villanueva, but he has shown inconsistencies in his game as well.

With the offense set, or at least at a comfortable level, questions still remain around the defense, singularly on the back end. The Steelers ranked 21st in total defense in 2015. An attempt at improving the defense through the NFL Draft appears to be successful in drafting a talented duo in cornerback Artie Burns and cornerback/safety Sean Davis in the first two rounds. Both players are likely to be big contributors for the defense in 2016 — a unit that had its share of struggles in 2015. However, Burns had a limited preseason due to injury, and didn’t make his debut until the preseason finale against Carolina. The Steelers added the talented but mercurial Justin Gilbert from the Cleveland Browns in a trade

Pittsburgh’s front seven had its issues as well. Missed tackles plagued the team last year, from unlikely sources. Lawrence Timmons, a perennial leading tackler for the Steelers, had his share of missed tackles, as did Ryan Shazier. It didn’t stop with them. That must be rectified this season.

A few guys worth keeping an eye on as the Steelers begin the new campaign are Jarvis Jones and James Harrison. Jones will be playing in what could be his final year in Pittsburgh. He is entering his fourth year, and has underperformed since being drafted. He has 87 tackles, five sacks, one interception and two forced fumbles in 36 career games. Bud Dupree had some bright spots in 2015, but he'll be out the first half of the season as he recovers from a groin injury. An offseason weight loss of 20 pounds should provide Dupree with that extra quickness he needs to be more effective once he returns.

As far as Harrison, well, just like last year you have to monitor his playing time. He has proven that even as he approaches age 40 that he can still produce at a moderately high level, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take precautions.

“I don’t make decisions regarding James thinking about James,” Tomlin said. “I will keep him out of the fray because he’s done this for a long time, and his learning curve isn’t as steep as others, and young guys like Dupree and (Anthony) Chickillo could use the reps. We’ll play it by ear and we’ll buSteelers Mike Tomlinild potential of those things day by day. It’s not unlike how we’ve done it in the past.”

Pittsburgh faces a tough stretch in their first half of the season, with five playoff teams from a season ago in the first seven games. The Cincinnati Bengals, Washington Redskins, New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs all made the playoffs, and the New York Jets missed out due to a Steelers win. A tougher AFC North will be sure to challenge the Steelers for the top spot as well.

The Steelers have high hopes in 2016. Offensively, there has been speculation of a 30 points per game average goal. The defense has its questions, but the familiarity and cohesiveness gives the potential needed to improve in all aspects. If the stars align and all pieces of the puzzle come together, the Steelers might be playing February football.

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