Disclaimer : Preseason win-loss records are usually not indicative of regular season results, unless you’re the Cleveland Browns.
After two uninspiring preseason games, the Steelers find themselves with an 0-2 record (2-13 over their last 15 preseason games), which for some fans, is reason to go into full blown panic mode. A few of those are already in mid-season form, calling for Mike Tomlin to be fired immediately. While they are certainly entitled to their opinions, it is important to remember that the purpose of preseason football is not to win games in August, but to find the depth necessary to win that big game in early February. Until the NFL starts issuing a trophy to crown a preseason champion, preseason records mean nothing. Having said that, despite their 0-2 preseason record, it appears that the Steelers are finding some quality depth, at multiple positions, on both sides of the ball, where free agency and upcoming suspensions have left some holes to fill.
On offense, the Steelers have been tasked with replacing the production of two of their biggest weapons, Martavis Bryant (suspended for the entire 2016 season) and LeVeon Bell (suspended for the first three games). Replacing a deep threat such as Bryant would be almost insurmountable to a lot of teams, but the Steelers have become known, over the last ten years, for the talented receivers they have drafted and developed. Sammie Coates, drafted last year out of Clemson, had his coming out party in the divisional round playoff game against Denver, replacing injured starter Antonio Brown. Coates showed off speed and big play ability similar to that of Bryant, giving the coaching staff the confidence that he is ready to take the next step in his development.
When training camp opened up in July, Coates showed up in tremendous shape and put on an impressive display with numerous highlight reel catches. Despite a couple of fumbles during the first preseason game against Detroit, there is no denying that Sammie Coates is far ahead of where he was last year at this time. The catch he made last week against Philadelphia, tip-toeing the sideline, is another indication that Coates is ready to make his mark in 2016. Coates will likely be competing with Markus Wheaton for the starting job opposite Antonio Brown and will either win the job or have to settle for being in the number four spot. Either way, Sammie Coates looks like he could be a potent weapon in the Steelers passing game.
Another receiver who has really impressed this preseason is Eli Rogers. Entering his second season as an undrafted free agent out of Louisville, after missing all of last season with a foot injury, Eli Rogers has come back strong this year. Rogerd had earned the confidence of Ben Roethlisberger, and the praise of offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who has called him the best slot receiver since he’s been in Pittsburgh. Haley has also compared him to Wayne Chrebet. Pat Kerwin of SiriusXM NFL Radio says that there is no way the Steelers will be able to hide Rogers on the practice squad. Since Antonio Brown took him under his wing, Rogers has emerged a better route runner with improved hands, and is the early favorite to be the number one slot receiver.
Even with the loss of Martavis Bryant, the group of receivers that the Steelers will take into the 2016 season looks to be strong and deep, especially if recent addition, Cobi Hamilton, can develop some consistency to his game. Ben Roethlisberger certainly believes in the wide receiver depth, enough that he thinks the offensive will be able to use the 5-wide set this year.
Signing DeAngelo Williams to a free agent deal continues to look like a stroke of genius for Kevin Colbert, as LeVeon Bell faces another suspension to start the season. Going into this year however, as opposed to last season, the depth behind Williams looks to be much more solid with Fitzgerald Toussaint and Daryl Richardson, both of who are playing well thus far. Toussaint, who was signed off of the Steelers practice squad on December 6, 2015, performed well in the postseason and has carried it over to this point thus far. He seems to have shaken off his fumble which ended the Steelers postseason run last year. Daryl Richardson, who has NFL experience, is an intriguing runner who gives the Steelers a good option behind Toussaint. While he most likely will be the odd man out once Bell returns, Richardson is more than adequate for the role he would serve, considering also that Roosevelt Nix is an option for some carries at fullback.
Despite the loss of Bryant for the year, and Bell for the first three games, the Steelers have the potential to have an historic season on offense. The questions for this year’s team though reside mostly on defense. Last year’s Steelers defense was a work in progress for most of the season. While they were solid against the run, and ranked in the top three in sacks, they had one of the worst pass defenses in the league. That should change this year, with the additions of Sean Davis and Artie Burns. Both 2016 draft picks are big, fast and possess superior turnover potential over those they are replacing, and will add much needed depth to the secondary. Davis, who was originally slotted as a safety, is now expected to replace Senquez Golson as the slot corner in sub-packages, so the apparent emergence of Shamarko Thomas, finally, couldn’t have come at a better time. Thomas finally looks like he is playing without having to think about what he is doing which is letting his abilities shine through. If he can continue progressing, he can help solidify an improving secondary.
The front seven of the defense is looking to replace the losses of Steve McClendon and Sean Spence and may actually find themselves to be improved based on the early play of Javon Hargraves, Steve Johnson and Tyler Matakevich. Daniel McCullers also looks to be a little more aggressive as well. If McCullers can find some consistency with his game, that would free up Hargraves to rotate with Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt to help keep them more rested and fresh throughout the season. Matakevich seems to always be around the ball, and with his enthusiasm for the special teams, it’s going to be hard to keep him off the final 53 man roster. The success of Jarvis Jones might be the key for the defense in 2016. It’s time for Keith Butler to give him consistent reps and cut back on his rotation with James Harrison.
Jarvis Jones is blessed with immense talent, and gains confidence the more he plays. Up to this point in his career, every time Jones seemed on the verge of establishing himself, he suffered an untimely injury that set his development back. Keith Butler needs to find out what he has in Jones, but he never will truly know until he turns him loose, and this is the year that Jarvis will reward Butler for doing so. Besides, it’s in their best interest to keep 38 year old James Harrison as fresh as possible for rushing the quarterback on third down. A fresh Deebo is still as dangerous as any pass rusher in the league. With two more preseason games to go, it will be interesting to see who can maintain the momentum they have created for themselves, like Anthony Chickillo, and who might yet emerge to crack the final roster, like Travis Feeney, who has missed time to injury. These players represent the opportunity to provide better quality depth for a Steelers team that is already one of the best in the AFC. Finding that roster depth is what the preseason is all about, so that the Steelers can win that big game in early February.