LATROBE, Pa. — This just in: Martavis Bryant isn’t here at Steelers training camp and the suspended receiver won’t be a big-play weapon in the Pittsburgh passing game arsenal this season. That news is not being greeted with a collective yawn by the organization, but it isn’t eliciting a series of involuntary shudders either.
And that lack of panic is at least due in part to the increased presence of second-year pass-catcher Sammie Coates, who has given the Steelers a sense of confidence that Bryant’s absence won’t be a devastating development that will derail this team’s Super Bowl aspirations.
“Martavis is a really talented player who was coming into his own,” Steelers veteran receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said Thursday morning at the team’s picturesque camp at St. Vincent College. “But it helps when you have the best receiver in the league (Antonio Brown), a top two running back in the league (Le’Veon Bell) and a top three quarterback in the league (Ben Roethlisberger), with everybody else just filling in and doing their role. We know we’re talented, and I think Sammie’s definitely ready for this step.”
Coates had a superb day in practice on Wednesday afternoon, using his 6' 1", 212-pound size and athleticism to make a series of fine catches, including a pretty one-handed grab deep down the left sideline. His connection with Roethlisberger is developing nicely, and he carries himself like a young player who knows something that most of us don’t know yet: that he’s about to emerge as a major playmaker in 2016.
Coates gave Steelers fans a taste of what was to come in Pittsburgh’s divisional-round playoff loss at Denver last year, catching two passes for 61 yards, which were two more than he totaled in the regular season, when he routinely served on the scout team, going up against Pittsburgh’s first-string defense. But that experience was crucial in preparing him for what should be his role as the team’s No. 3 receiver this year, behind Brown and fourth-year vet Markus Wheaton.
“The step he took in Denver is what people in the outside world see, but I think that step was taken much, much earlier in last year’s journey, with his attitude about his work daily,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin told me. “He was a guy that really embraced the day to day work and challenge against the first-team defense, and he gained a lot of respect from his peers and got better in the process. He’s taken a significant step, but I don’t think any of us are surprised by it because we’ve seen the maturation process over the course of 12 months.”
Coates, a third-round pick out of Auburn, has won Roethlisberger’s trust, and that makes all the difference in the Steelers' passing game. Big Ben doesn’t suffer receivers who aren’t ready when their number is called, and he certainly doesn’t throw to them.
“With Ben, you’ve just got to know what you’re doing, because if you don’t, you’ve got trouble with him,” Coates said. “He wants you to be consistent every day and do the right things, and if you aren’t consistent, you can’t play with Ben.
“But we’ve got a great group of receivers, one of the most loaded groups of receivers I’ve ever seen in my life. A lot of guys can help fill the void of missing Martavis. It’s going to be a great season for all of us, and if we all keep working, we’ve got nothing to worry about. The sky’s the limit with us, and we’ve got a bunch of playmakers around the ball.”
No argument here. Pittsburgh has the best skill position talent in the league, and Coates is just the next man up in the Steelers’ assembly line of playmakers.
More News and Notes from Steelers camp
• The Steelers have made it well known that they’re crazy about two-pointers. Once the NFL made the extra-point try a 33-yard kick, the Steelers said they’d try more two-pointers, and they did, setting a league record last season with eight conversions in 11 attempts (72.7%), or double the deuces of the next most successful club (Green Bay four of six, 66.7). But I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet, and I’d be shocked if Pittsburgh didn’t attempt significantly more this season, given how many players they have who are well-suited to work in tight quarters and execute the try (see Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates).
“I’m not scared of that progression,” said Tomlin, when I asked him if his team would be even more aggressive in going for two this season? “I’m excited about it. I believe with the collection of weapons we have, it’s a viable option for us. I’m comfortable with what transpired last year, but excited about moving forward with it this year and see where it takes us.”
The Steelers work on their two-point plays at the start of every practice, with their “7 Shots” drill, and offensive coordinator Todd Haley sounds even more eager to double down after touchdowns this year. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is on record saying he’d like to go for two after every touchdown.
“It gives us a boost and the guys love it, they’re into it,” Haley said after Wednesday’s practice. “In a game, when you score and then hit one of those, you feel like you’ve scored twice. It adds to the kind of the attitude and aggressive mentality, so I think it’s great for us. We’ve got such a library of plays, and we don’t even have them in the playbook, it’s just a list that we practice so many times. I think you’re going to see more people working on it like we’ve done.”
• Did you know that Steelers all-world receiver Antonio Brown has a personal chef who is available to him even here in Latrobe, during training camp? And that the same person also serves as Brown’s social media guru, handling that part of No. 84’s media profile and presence? Well, now you do.
• The Steelers-Bengals rivalry, of course, took center stage during the first round of the playoffs last season, when the Steelers escaped Cincinnati with that near-miraculous victory that featured some of the most intense and violent play in recent NFL memory. The Bengals will travel to Pittsburgh in Week 2 to renew hostilities, and they’ll do it without linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who was suspended for the first three games of 2016 for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Brown late in the playoff game, costing Brown a chance to play the next week at Denver. The clubs will meet again in Cincinnati in Week 15, on NBC’s Sunday Night Football.
Naturally there will be some carryover from last year’s drama, and the Steelers admit the intensity of the rivalry with the Bengals has escalated rather suddenly.
“It’s pretty hot right now,” Tomlin said. “Pretty hot. But I like the rivalries that encompass our journey through the (AFC) North. And I like the fact people talk about our matchups against Cincinnati, Baltimore and Cleveland. I just want to be a component of any of those discussions.”
• Le’Veon Bell at one point sounded a confident tone on social media that he might be able to beat or reduce his potential four-game league suspension for missing drug tests upon appeal, but I’m not sensing much optimism for his chances among Steelers sources. Bell reportedly is hanging his case on having changed his cell phone number, claiming he never received any notification of when he was scheduled to be drug tested.
But ignorance is rarely, if ever, viewed as a legitimate excuse in the league’s testing program, and the Steelers seem to be preparing for the worst-case scenario, while privately holding out the tiniest sliver of hope that an independent arbiter might see things differently.
5 Questions with Steelers GM Kevin Colbert
Q1: Can you reasonably expect DeAngelo Williams, at age 33, to produce for you again this season like he did last year (907 yards rushing, 11 touchdowns) when you had to play without Le’Veon Bell for 10 games due to either suspension or injury?
KC: All I know is in the year I spent around him last year, I came away with the impression he’s a true professional. He’s older, but as he stated, his career has been extended because he’s always played with another back. Physically he can still play, and intangible wise, he’s a true pro. On game day there’s no nonsense with that guy. He’s ready to go. I think we feel comfortable we have two solid NFL runners, and I know this, he really helped us last year.
Q2: Your new free-agent tight end, Ladarius Green, is on the PUP list and not practicing yet after ankle surgery in January. Are you still hopeful of seeing him active in September when the regular season arrives?
KC: I would hope so, yes. He’s progressing, but we really thought it would be touch and go up to this point, early in camp. The surgery was not a routine clean-up, so we knew it’d be a significant amount of time. We’d love to see him out here, but we’re not in any hurry. Now, where he progresses to from here, we’ll see. But we thought he could be a PUP candidate for sure when we signed him and that didn’t change our mind about him.
Q3: With the new rule that touchbacks come out to the 25 yard line, some teams are working on the “mortar’’ or lob kickoff, trying to pin returners deep in their own territory, rather than just booting the ball out of the end zone. Do you expect to see that tactic utilized league-wide this season?
KC: I think you will see it, yeah, because five yards can be the difference between a win and a loss. You’ll see especially late in the year in cold weather cities where you can’t consistently put the ball out of the end zone. You might not see it a lot early, but as the year goes on you will. And the league knew that was a possibility, but in an effort to make the game safer, it was worth the attempt. I think only time will tell if (the new rule) works, or is counterproductive.
Q4: I’ve heard some buzz that this is the year defensive end Stephon Tuitt has a break-out season and becomes even more of a force on your 3–4 front. Do you concur?
KC: Yeah, I do. He’s a handful. He’s big, athletic, he’s tough, and plays with a great motor. He’s really good and he hasn’t peaked in my opinion. Him and (fellow defensive end) Cam Heyward, they’ve become a great duo because Stephon respects Cam and knows if he wants to be a great player, he’s going to have to do the types of things that Cam does. Because Cam brings it every play. Cam has done a great job of being a mentor, and of seeing Stephon’s potential and really making sure he maximizes it. We’re not surprised he can be really good.
Q5: The Steelers secondary is quite young and has been the defensive weak link in recent years (third worst in passing yards allowed last season). If your first two draft picks, cornerback Artie Burns and safety Sean Davis, end up playing a lot this year, is that a good development for this team’s Super Bowl hopes?
KC: I would hope so, because they would have then proven they can help us. But they still have to prove that, and that’s not a given one week into camp. Any time we take a junior, as Artie is, we always say we’re getting them for their senior year. Only the exceptional ones produce early, so it’s not a given he’ll make up that time.
And Sean is a senior, but he has to transition back to safety, because he’s been out on the corner the last two seasons (at Maryland). It’s a great attribute to have that versatility, but getting back inside and doing the different things you have to do as a safety in the slot, it’ll take some time with him. So we expect them to be able to compete and contribute, but whether or not they’re starters, we’re still a good preseason away from knowing that.
Biggest Turnaround: Chris Boswell's (lack of) tackling
The Steelers won’t admit this, but after watching their veteran kicker Shaun Suisham shred his knee and ruin his career last August when he attempted to make a tackle on a kickoff in the Hall of Fame Game, I’m pretty sure there’s an unspoken rule that there will be no tackling required by new Pittsburgh kicker Chris Boswell this preseason. Suisham actually got hurt when his foot got caught awkwardly in the turf, rather than on the tackle, but it was still a costly decision in a meaningless game.
I asked Tomlin if he’d encourage his kicker to not focus on tackling this summer, and he answered it as only he can: “I try not to live in my fears that way,” he said. “Unfortunately injuries are a part of the game.”
True that. But logic also dictates that kickers save their tackling skills for only the most dire situations in the regular season and playoffs. As Colbert correctly pointed out: “If your kicker is making tackles, you’ve got some problems on your cover team.”
Drawing Some Buzz: Outside linebacker Bud Dupree
Dupree has been slowed a bit by a groin issue in recent days, but he had a fast start to camp and is eliciting predictions of a big year ahead from Steelers linebackers coach Joey Porter and assorted other observers. In an attempt to get faster and more explosive this off-season, Dupree is down about 20 pounds from the 274 pounds he carried when he arrived at camp last year as a rookie and first-round pick.
The Steelers still lack that consistently disruptive pass-rusher off the edge—Heyward and Tuitt led the team with 7 and 6.5 sacks respectively in 2015—and the belief is that Dupree is the most likely candidate for a double-digit sack performance this year, after registering just four last season. All of those came in the season’s first eight games, with Dupree getting blanked in the second half and the playoffs. Of the Steelers’ 48 sacks, only six came from the first-round outside linebacking tandem of Dupree and veteran Jarvis Jones (two). That has to improve.
“He should take that leap, that leap you would for in his second year,” Colbert said of Dupree. “I think both him and Jarvis have the capability (to have double digits in sacks), but they have to prove it over 16 games.”