Steelers bumpy preseason leaves plenty of questions
PITTSBURGH (AP) Oh, for the days of late July, when the biggest question surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers was whether Antonio Brown's custom-wrapped Rolls Royce would avoid the occasional pothole at Saint Vincent College.
A month later and with a visit to the Super Bowl champions looming barely a week away, the picture is far more complicated.
The budding star wide receiver is suspended for a month for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. The most accurate kicker in franchise history is out for the season. The guy who came in to replace him is done too. The starting safeties can't seem to find the field at the same time. The All-Pro center's left ankle is busted. And the new-look defense is struggling with some old-look problems, like giving up chunks of yardage to nondescript opponents.
While there is hardly a sense of panic heading into Thursday night's exhibition finale against Carolina, Pittsburgh's extended camp can't end quickly enough.
''It's still just a preseason game, so the biggest thing is to get through it healthy and get through the other end,'' linebacker James Harrison said. ''I'm not concerned with the way we played or who got how many reps. Once the season begins, all that stuff will get sorted out.''
Maybe, but there's still plenty for coach Mike Tomlin to sort through as the team tries to figure out which 53 players to take to New England next week.
One Steeler that will not be on the plane is Martavis Bryant, who will miss the first four games for running afoul of the league's drug policy. The suspension became official on Monday, though Tomlin said the team was aware of the possibility ''for some time.''
Bryant can join his teammates for meetings and film sessions but is barred from participating or watching practice during the suspension, though Tomlin believes that is the least of the 23-year-old's problems.
''He's got issues that he's dealing with that are bigger than football,'' Tomlin said.
Bryant stressed he is ''embarrassed'' by his actions but declined to get specific on how many tests he failed and when the trouble began.
''This is a new challenge that came my way, and I've just got to own up to my challenge, face it and overcome it,'' Bryant said.
Veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey will be given the first crack at moving up the depth chart while Bryant sits, most likely as the No. 3 receiver behind Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton. Heyward-Bey caught all of three passes during his first season with the Steelers in 2014, but was an invaluable presence on special teams and is a willing blocker on the outside. Spending some time in the offseason with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the rest of the receiving corps during an informal off camp only helped.
''He is playing with a lot of confidence,'' Roethlisberger said. ''I think he will step up and we will be just fine.''
It's a mantra echoed throughout the locker room, even with safeties Mike Mitchell and Shamarko Thomas spending most of July and August watching the other limited by injuries. They've barely been between the lines when it counts during the preseason, with Mitchell slowed by hamstring and ankle problems. Not exactly the best way to implement a cover two defense that relies heavily on proper communication between the two guys at the back.
Mitchell, who played through a torn groin most of last season, is hardly concerned. He and Thomas were on the field for every snap during organized team activities and training camp. That repetition will pay off eventually.
''We understand what each other likes to do, and we try to accentuate those things while we're out there together,'' Mitchell said. ''But it's not rocket science, by any means.''
Neither, it seems, is kicking in the tricky winds at Heinz Field. Shaun Suisham mastered it as well as anyone over the last five seasons, making more than 90 percent of his attempts in four of five years. He tore ligaments in his knee in the Hall of Fame game against Minnesota and Garrett Hartley ripped up his right hamstring last week against Buffalo, leaving the Steelers to send a sixth-round pick to Jacksonville for Josh Scobee, who spent most of his 11 seasons in the league as a good kicker on a bad team. That's not the case in Pittsburgh.
''Coach Tomlin talks about winning a championship and to hear those things being said is kind of a shock to me because of where we were in Jacksonville the last seven years was not very good,'' Scobee said. ''It's not fun to lose game after game after game after game.''
AP NFL websites: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL