The Pittsburgh Steelers, one could argue, have the greatest collection of skill-position talent in the NFL. But that won’t necessarily be the case this year, especially early in the season.
That’s because Martavis Bryant has been suspended for the 2016 season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, while Le’Veon Bell will miss the first three games of the season for the same transgression.
The Steelers, however, aren’t going to let these suspensions affect them – or at least not affect their morale.
“Things are actually looking really good,” Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “We understood the things that we were going to have to go through. Everybody just understands that they have more responsibility that they have to take on. I feel like we have the next-man-up mentality here. That’s what Coach Tomlin is trying to instill in us. We’re having a great camp. We miss those guys and we’re going to miss those guys during the season, but we got a lot of great guys that are going to be able to fill in for them.”
DeAngelo Williams, even at 33, is a more-than-capable backup for Bell, but much will be expected of Sammie Coates this season. The 23-year-old Auburn product had just one reception in six games as a rookie but – at 6-1, 212 pounds – has the size and speed to be a factor in the NFL.
“Sammie’s been doing good,” Shazier said. “Every young player has ups and downs. I still have mine and I’m in my third year. Some practices, you’ll be like, ‘Wow, I haven’t seen nobody make a play like that in awhile.’ And some days, you’re like, ‘Dang, Sammie, we need those.’ Every now and again, he has his ups and downs, but I feel Sammie is doing really good. I feel like he’s going to be able to help us take care of the responsibilities that Martavis did last year.”
Shazier, also 23, had a solid sophomore season in 2015. The Ohio State product had 87 tackles, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and one interception. Still, the Steelers finished 21st in total defense, including 30th against the pass.
“It has to be a lot better,” Shazier said of the defense. “A lot of us have to take more responsibility. We weren’t playing like the Steelers last year. Last year, we were definitely trying to understand each other, understand the responsibility that each other is doing. I feel like as a defense as a whole, we’re starting to understand each other a lot better. We’re learning how to play with each other a lot better. Last year, we had times when the older guys were trying to tell the young guys what to do. I’m not going say it was a split defense, but a lot of times we didn’t gel as much as we are now. We have great chemistry. We’re a real fast defense. We only had to plug in a few extra pieces – not too many – so a lot of guys are comfortable playing with each other. A lot of the main pieces of the defense, we’ve been with each other going into our third year now, and I feel like we’re feeling really comfortable.”
The Steelers used five of their first six picks on defense in this year’s draft, including each of their first three. Veterans like Shazier – not to mention James Harrison – intend to hold the rookies to a high standard.
“Sometimes it’s tough, and it’s growing pains,” Shazier said. “I feel like it’s been getting a lot better. Last year, we had to go through that a lot. I was still young and making the checks and making the calls, so sometimes the older guys would see things a little faster than me. It would take me some time to see it because I’m still trying to understand things and they’re trying to make me check something a little faster than I was comfortable (with).I was still trying to analyze everything. But now I’m starting to see things a lot faster and do things a lot quicker. . . . Once you show them, I think that really helps out a lot also.”
Harrison, 38, isn’t the player he was 10 years ago, but his presence is still felt on that side of the ball, especially in terms of the swagger he brings to that unit.
“James definitely wants us to play somewhat like they used to play: hard, gritty football and just have everybody out there not afraid of hitting and just putting intimidation into everybody,” Shazier said. “Everybody doesn’t look as mean as James, but I feel like we bring that aspect to the game, and we’re definitely going to show that this year with the pass and run defense. Everybody is starting to understand what we need to be to be a championship team, especially going against the No. 1 offense in the NFL. Le’Veon is still able to practice with us for right now. We still have Ben Roethlisberger, who’s the best quarterback, and AB (Antonio Brown), who’s the best receiver. Going against those guys every day in practice, I really feel, is helping us become the team that we really need to be.”
Harrison isn’t the only veteran who wants another Super Bowl ring. So does Ben Roethlisberger, who, at 34, is definitely in the tail end of the prime.
“We know what we have and we understand that there’s so little time left,” Shazier said. “We’re definitely trying to get a Super Bowl and I know Ben is also. We know every team has prime years, and I feel like we’re in our prime years right now. We’re definitely trying to get us back to the promised land and getting the defense where it needs to be because the offense is really doing what it needs to right now.”
Pittsburgh, which finished 10-6 last year, has won the AFC North twice in the last seven years (2010, 2014), with Cincinnati winning it three times (2009, 2013, 2015) and Baltimore winning it twice (2011, 2012). Is it safe to say that the Bengals, who have made the playoffs in six of the last seven seasons, are officially the Steelers’ biggest rivals?
Shazier says no.
“I think Cincinnati wants to be our rival,” he said, “but the Ravens are still our rivals.”