The Pittsburgh Steelers will once again start a season short at least one key player after wide receiver Martavis Byrant was suspended for the 2016 season. It's a familiar situation for Mike Tomlin's team, which entered the 2015 campaign with both Bryant and running back Le'Veon Bell suspended.
Bryant, a starting receiver, was suspended four games for violating the league's substance abuse program and also missed one game due to a knee injury once he was able to play. Bell was suspended two games and went on to play in just six games before he tore his MCL and was lost for the remainder of the season.
After receiving a year-long ban for another substance abuse violation, Bryant's NFL career has completely stalled. One teammate, however, believes the young receiver will be back and better than ever in 2017.
"I'm pretty sure when he gets back, he's going to learn from all of this and he's going to be a better player from it and a better person," Bell said following the announcement of Bryant's suspension.
For now, the Steelers will have to press on without him, but if last season was any indication, they could be considered lucky if Bryant is their most substantial loss in 2015.
The Steelers' injury list for last season was massive. Other than Bell and Bryant, the biggest name was starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Super Bowl-winning quarterback missed four games due to MCL and bone injuries, and while he was injured Mike Vick had to start at quarterback. Unfortunately for the Steelers, Vick also sustained an injury and the Steelers had to turn to Landry Jones.
With Vick down, Jones himself was injured against the Browns and Roethlisberger had to come off the bench even though he was nowhere near 100 percent.
In the playoffs, Roethlisberger was attempting passes while being unable to throw beyond a few yards due to pain in his shoulder.
A desperate situation to be sure, and made all the worse when starting offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum tore his ACL in Week 7 and was lost for the season. Center Maurkice Pouncey also missed the entire season with an ankle injury. Finally, DeAngelo Williams, a free agent signing last offseason, was playing very well in Bell's place, but got injured just before the Steelers entered the playoffs.
Defensively, the Steelers weren't quite as hurt by injuries, but there were still significant injuries of note. Linebacker Ryan Shazier missed several games with a shoulder injury, while cornerback Cortez Allen barely saw the field due to his own knee injury. Both defensive end Stephon Tuitt and safety Will Allen were dealing with knee and ankle injuries that forced them out of games, too. On top of that, the Steelers had to deal with injuries to special teamers Garrett Hartley and Shaun Suisham.
All's well that ends well
Somehow, someway, the Steelers fielded a competitive team in a very competitive division last season. Down a starting running back, quarterback and wide receiver, they still somehow managed to win games. They won with Jones under center and they won with Vick under center by outlasting their opponents and making good use of backups.
When both Vick and Jones were hurt, a hobbled Roethlisberger still threw for 379 yards and three touchdowns in a 30-9 win over the Browns.
Williams was crucial to Pittsburgh's success last season, and was one of the best free agent signings of 2015. After a long career as the on-again, off-again starter with the Carolina Panthers, Williams hit the open market to a lack of fanfare and a lot of questions about his durability and value late in his career. But the Steelers brought him in to be Bell's backup, and he wound up being a huge asset to the team.
After playing in just six games in 2014, Williams played in all 16 regular season games, putting up 907 yards and 11 touchdowns. If he didn't get hurt in the postseason, the Steelers might have done even more damage. Even with a limited Roethlisberger, no Bell and no Williams, the Steelers came back to beat the Cincinnati Bengals in a thrilling Wild Card game. However, dynamic receiver Antonio Brown sustained a concussion against the Bengals and was ruled out for the following round.
The Steelers kept it close against the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. With Brown out, Bryant stepped up and caught nine passes for 154 yards as Pittsburgh held the lead for most of the game. But then Denver took control with three minutes left and earned the 23-16 win. The Steelers' season was over, but the message was clear: Tomlin's team can handle adversity.
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Hopefully, losing Bryant isn't the first bad omen that triggers more suspensions and potentially more injuries for the Steelers. But if it is, they have a talented roster, one of the best coaches in the league and an indomitable will that is up to the challenge.
"I think the sky is the limit for our offense, regardless," Bell said on the R&B Podcast with NFL Media's Mike Robinson and Nate Burleson. "I look back when I watched last year, I didn't play and the offense it still didn't matter. The times when Ben (Roethlisberger) was out and (Michael) Vick came in, we still came in and moved the ball. When I came out, DeAngelo (Williams) came in.
"We have guys, we have depth and I think the fact that we have all of that depth and we have playmakers everywhere, I think our offense is still going to be just as dynamic. Obviously, Martavis would make it a lot easier but we still have that next man up (mentality) and that's the kind of things we've been doing."
That isn't to diminish Bryant's potential impact -- losing him for a year unquestionably hurts the team -- but the Steelers will likely be fine in the end.