Nobody would blame Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley if he tampered expectations for his unit this season considering star running back Le’Veon Bell (three games) and emerging receiver Martavis Bryant (entire season) are dealing with suspensions, and the replacement for retired security blanket Heath Miller, Ladarius Green, has yet to practice with the team.
But, no, Haley and the Steelers expect to hit the ground running this season.
“The thing that’s exciting to me is that the players feel like as much as we did some good things last year, we all felt like there was more to get,” says Haley. “When the players start feeling like that, I think it’s a good sign. Ben [Roethlisberger] and some of the other key guys were like, ‘Yeah, we did well but we can get better.’
“Between the suspensions and injuries [last season] I thought we did a great job of guys stepping in and helping us to move along. Even going to Denver as depleted as we were, I thought we gave the game away in my opinion. We missed five or six easy opportunities, easy plays that would have gotten us over the hump and probably put the game out of reach. We’ll have to overcome some things again but that's part of the game and the things we went through last year will only help us.”
The last time the Steelers took the field, a 23–16 loss at Denver in the divisional round of the playoffs, Pittsburgh took the field with a dinged up Roethlisberger (shoulder) but without both running backs (Bell and DeAngelo Williams) and Antonio Brown (concussion). The Steelers had previously lost center Maurkice Pouncey and left tackle Kelvin Beachum to injured reserve. Yet there they were, 10 minutes left and the ball in Denver territory, leading the future Super Bowl champions 13–12 when third-string running back Fitzgerald Toussaint was hit and fumbled, giving the Broncos the opening they needed.
Now the Steelers, who scored 26.4 points per game last season, return once again with their sights on scoring over 30 points a game this season. To do that, the Steelers are going to need improve their red-zone touchdown ranking, which was 13th (57.1%) a season ago.
“I think it’s just a matter of tightening up a little more,” says Haley. “As great as AB is, he’s still 5' 10" and when the field gets short, it becomes much more difficult for those types of guys to make plays. I think Sammie Coates is a big target for us. [Tight end' Jesse James, I think, will be better for us this year in that area. Having Le’Veon down there is huge and clearly we were missing him a bunch last year. We did some good things but we can be better and take better advantage of the opportunities. The key is to keep getting in there a bunch.”
The Steelers put a lot of eggs into the basket of Green, a former Charger, when they signed him to a four-year, $20-million contract. But instead of having a 6' 6" athletic target running down the middle of the field, the Steelers had to place him on PUP for his ankle or headaches (depending on the report). James will be in the spotlight now. He’s inexperienced but talented (6' 7", 254 pounds with solid athletic ability). He showed some potential last season when he caught a key touchdown in a victory over Oakland and hauled in a 22-yard pass in the playoff loss to the Broncos. Roethlisberger and Haley both love to use the tight end, especially in the red zone, so the Steelers have to get something out of the position.
“I think Jesse showed enough last year to get us excited and then in the off-season really worked hard, came in looking like a different person then he had the year before,” says Haley. “He is a big guy that Ben has some confidence in. Xavier Grimble is a talented, athletic guy that can get down the field. I think that even though it’s an area of concern, I do think there may be a skill-set that if we can get the most out of it, may help us in some areas.
“I’m excited to see Jesse continue to grow. He hasn’t done anything to not give us confidence to this point. That whole entire group has continued to be challenged by us and by Ben because we did lose a guy that meant so much. And you don’t replace Heath with just one guy, it's going to take that whole group.”
Haley has a lot confidence in the offensive line, and that includes left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, the mammoth 6' 9" athlete who entered college at Army as a receiver and tight end but was solid in 10 starts after Beachum went down.
“I feel up front, we probably have a chance to be as good as we’ve been,” says Haley. “Pouncey being back is as big as anything but we have more depth than we’ve ever had at all positions and I think [offensive line coach Mike Munchak] is the best at what he does. That position group has really come together and really has a chance to be really good.”
They’re going to have to be for Haley’s offense to reach that 30-point goal in the fifth year of his tenure as offensive coordinator.
“I think the continuity has added a great deal of confidence and communication to the group,” says Haley. “And Ben, you just see continued improvement by him every week. I think that’s why our expectations are internally are that have a chance to be very good.”
It takes more than skill …
For an upcoming story, I recently had a conversation with Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman about Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Sherman pulled Hopkins aside after the two met during Hopkins’s rookie season because, even though Hopkins only caught two passes that day, Sherman saw the potential greatness in the second-team, All-Pro receiver.
We talked about Hopkins' skills, but then I asked Sherman why Hopkins is so good despite not being the biggest or fastest receiver. I thought Sherman’s answer was a great lesson for aspiring players in the NFL and on the way.
“You can’t measure a man’s dawg by his size, speed, his measureables,” Sherman said. “If they could measure how much dawg a man has, then the first round would look a lot different than it does every year.
“A lot of those guys that end up being busts and not end up playing well, they don’t have a big dawg in them. They may look the part, run the part and have some decent tape but at the end of the day it takes more than that to survive in this league. It takes ability to overcome adversity, it takes the ability to get knocked down, taste your own blood, get back up and keep fighting. He has all that. He has the things you can’t coach, the things you can’t teach.”
All for one and one for all
Similarly, I was talking with Buccaneers Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy about Panthers guard Trai Turner, and then we got into a discussion about the rise of undersized defensive linemen like Aaron Donald (Rams) and Mike Daniels (Packers). Even though Turner plays in the same division, and Donald and Daniels play similar positions, McCoy couldn’t contain his enthusiasm for all of those players. I asked him why.
“I love the NFL, I love the sport I play in, I’m a fan of those guys,” said McCoy. “I love to watch Mike Daniels play. AD man, that’s my guy. We got to talk and he knows that’s my guy, man. Whenever I get a chance to see him go, I love to sit back and watch people go man.
“It’s not a competition to me. Obviously I want my team to win and I’m working to be the best but this game we play is very short lived so we all should be trying to be our best. We should all be pushing each other and that’s kind of how I look at it. The better they are, the better I get because I’m like, ‘Shoot, these guys are balling, I’ve got to step it up.’ That’s just the NFL. That’s competition. When you step out in that grass, if competing against the best is not your mind-set then you’re out here for the wrong reasons. When you see a guy doing well, don’t downgrade him or talk about him or make excuses for why he’s doing well, step your game up. That’s how I look at it. These guys are dominating the league so it pushes me to be even better. But I’m a fan of all those guys: Trai, Mike and Aaron. They’ve got fans in Gerald, even though I have to face one of them twice a year and he's out to take this division from me.”
Packers not repeating mistake?
After final cuts in 2008, the Packers cut veteran punter/placeholder Jon Ryan and replaced him with Derrick Frost, who was a disaster and later released. Ryan, however, continues to excel for the Seahawks. In Green Bay, where fans grumble about roster decisions even about backup players, there’s probably much consternation after the team released veteran Tim Masthay and claimed Jacob Schum from the Buccaneers. Masthay struggled late last season and a change was needed. By not waiting until after final cuts this time around, at least the Packers give themselves from breathing room and could make another move if Schum doesn’t show well Thursday against the Chiefs.
Bosa will be just fine
Sure, it’s not ideal that Joey Bosa missed all of training camp with a contract squabble (mostly the Chargers’ fault) as it won’t help his progress during his rookie season. But Bosa’s so good and plays such a position of need for the Chargers (end) that he can’t help but have a big impact this season in San Diego.
No playoffs for Vikings: The season-ending knee injury to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will indeed keep the Vikings out of the playoffs this season. There’s been some chatter about how the Vikings can overcome the loss like the Giants did in 1990 (Jeff Hostetler for Phil Simms) and the 1999 Rams (Kurt Warner for Marc Bulger). Come on. That Giants defense, which led the league in score (13.2 points per game), was outstanding. And the Rams had Orlando Pace, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Tory Holt, Ricky Proehl and Az-Zahir Hakim, along with the No. 4 scoring defense. And both Hostetler (29) and Kurt Warner (28) were in their primes and were prepped for the job. I like Shaun Hill more than most, but he’s 36. The Vikings, with Mike Zimmer at the helm, a good defense and Adrian Peterson, will battle to the end, but they’re just not good enough this year.
NFL gets one right: After players Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and James Harrison finally submitted to interviews in the Al Jazeera PED case (was that so hard?), the NFL went along with itself (previously cleared Peyton Manning) and Major League Baseball (cleared Ryan Howard and Ryan Zimmerman) in finding there was no credible evidence to find that players had violated the NFL drug policy. It’s so stunning to see the NFL handle something so responsibly that I feel like inserting a standing ovation gif here.