In 2015, the Pittsburgh Steelers were within minutes of going to their first AFC Championship game since the 2010 season, and in making it to that point, they had to overcome more injuries than just about any team in the NFL. The Steelers got that far by literally living out the “next man up” philosophy that Mike Tomlin has preached about since he arrived prior to the 2007 season. Despite losing Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Kelvin Beachum, Maurkice Pouncey, Ryan Shazier, Shaun Suisham, and others, for all, or significant parts of the season, and despite losing Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams for most or all of the postseason, the Steelers somehow remained legitimate Super Bowl contenders. In place of the fallen starters, replacements such as Ross Cockrell, Chris Boswell, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Cody Wallace, Landry Jones, and Alejandro Villanueva, all played major roles in victories during regular and postseason games. While the 2015 season ended without the Steelers bringing home a seventh Lombardi Trophy, it can still be classified as special season due to what they accomplished amidst the adversity they had to overcome along the way.
The Steelers, having begun preparations for the 2016 season, find themselves as one of the favorites to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LI. They have retooled their secondary with the additions of CB Artie Burns, University of Miami, and Safety Sean Davis, University of Maryland, in the draft, and bolstered the defensive line with South Carolina State DT, Javon Hargrave, who they believe can be a three down player. The coaching staff believes he also has the ability to relieve Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, to help keep them fresh throughout the season. These three draft picks continue the recent trend of the Steelers picking defensive players who are big, athletic, and fast, a most welcome trend, especially in the secondary. Over the last few years, the Steelers smallish defensive backs have been getting tortured, regularly, by the bigger receivers in the division and around the league, but with the additions of Artie Burns and Sean Davis, the Steelers now have four defensive backs at 6-0 or better, with plus ball skills, and who aren’t shy about hitting. As important as the additions of Burns, Davis and Hargrave are, the key to the 2016 season could rest on the ability of five Steelers Players to step up their production to the next level.
Dan McCullers : For the Steelers to get what they desire out of Javon Hargrave, part of which is being able to spell Heyward and Tuitt from time to time, Dan McCullers has to consistently find the level of performance, that he flashes from time to time, commensurate to his size, and he has to learn to play with more of a chip on his shoulder. McCullers has the physical stature to simply dominate and shut down a running game, but he needs to find a way to maintain the same level of intensity and focus as when he has flashed his potential. The fact that Steve McLendon is gone could be the motivation McCullers needs to claim a bigger role this season. If Man Mountain Dan can get it going this season, the Steelers defensive line will be one of the best in the NFL.
Jarvis Jones: While Jarvis Jones hasn’t been horrible, he hasn’t lived up to his billing coming out of Georgia either. Granted he has been asked to do quite a bit besides rushing the passer, and although he’s shown flashes of his ability to get to the quarterback, that part of his game has been rather disappointing overall. The Steelers aren’t sold on him either, as they have declined to exercise his option, making him a free agent at the end of 2016. The plus is that Jones seems to understand the move, and why, and is motivated by it. If Jarvis Jones wants to remain a Steelers linebacker beyond this season, he needs to make a noticeable move towards fulfilling his potential. If he does, not only will the defense get an extra boost from his pass rush, it will also help make life easier for a secondary that could use the benefits of putting more pressure on the quarterback.
Ladarius Green: After playing second fiddle to Antonio Gates during his short time in the league, it is now Ladarius Green’s time to shine. Following the retirement of Heath Miller, the best tight end in Steelers history, Green was given the opportunity by the Steelers to finally be the man. I’m sure it’s also no coincidence, as well, that he was signed just prior to the announcement of Martavis Bryant’s season long suspension. At 6-6/240 lbs, and possessing an impressive catch radius, Green is fast enough to line up out wide. He is big enough too, that if he can adapt to blocking (he’s expressed his willingness), Green has the talent to be a truly dynamic weapon for Ben and the offense. Very rarely do the Steelers pursue someone in free agency as aggressively as they did Green, so he needs to do whatever work is necessary to validate their faith in bringing him to Pittsburgh.
*Sammie Coates : There can be no more pressure on a rookie, than having to fill in for the NFL’s best wide receiver, during a playoff game. Sammie Coates handled that pressure like it was just another game, producing two big receptions and drawing a key pass interference penalty on another play. For Coates, who’s looking to be the receiver to pick up the slack for a suspended Martavis Bryant, pressure shouldn’t be an issue. Coates has comparable skills to Bryant, and could potentially be an upgrade from a more expanded route tree than Bryant. This situation is why the Steelers drafted Coates, and it’s up to Coates to take advantage of it. With his talent, if he puts in the work, Sammie Coates could very well be waving at Darius Heyward-Bey as he passes him on the depth chart.
Ross Cockrell : When Cockrell was coming out in the NFL Draft of 2014, the Steelers brought him in for a visit, and were apparently looking to select him in the fourth round. Needless to say, they finally got there man, prior to last season, after Buffalo released him. Cockrell came in and almost immediately passed up the recently acquired Brandon Boykin, on the depth chart. The first thing he did upon arriving, was to insist on going up against Antonio Brown, and held his own, which caught the attention of his new teammates. Cockrell helped to stabilize the secondary this past season and did a decent job overall considering he came into a brand new system. After a full year of exposure to Keith Butler’s defense, there is no reason that Cockrell shouldn’t come into this season with a lot more confidence and ability to play faster. As competitive of a player as he is, and with the potential that he has shown, Cockrell needs to keep working hard to turn that potential into production, and help get the ball back into the hands of Ben Roethlisberger and the offense.
There are certainly no guarantees in life, but if these five players can take their games to the next level, and the Steelers can stay healthy, the Steelers will have a better shot at winning a seventh Lombardi Trophy than any other team in the AFC, if not the NFL.