In the wake of the Pittsburgh Steelers gut-wrenching loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Divisional playoff this past Sunday, many fans are still trying to cope with the fact that a season with so many ups and downs is now over.
The loss to the Broncos was in many ways a caricature of the season as a whole; agonizingly close, yet in the end, something would happen to sabotage the Steelers in the end. Although the loss in Denver meant hopes of a seventh Super Bowl title will have a to wait another year, it does provide a chance to look back at the best and worst for the 2015 season.
Let’s look back at the season in part one of the season in review edition of Three up, three down.
*Talk about taking the “next man up” mantra and running with it. Considering this team faced the league’s most difficult schedule and had to play parts of six games without their franchise quarterback (including a playoff game) the Steelers ability to overcome injuries to some of the best players in the NFL tops the list of positives.
The injury bug came early and would linger all season long for the Steelers. It started with season-ending injuries to All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey and kicker Shaun Suisham and would continue the rest of the way.
Cody Wallace might not be the caliber of Pouncey, but he had a solid season and did something that Pouncey has struggled to do much of his career; play a 16-game schedule injury-free. Kelvin Beachum might not have the cache of injury prone Pouncey, but his reputation as one of the finest left tackles in the NFL is acknowledged by many in the league. So when a season-ending knee injury to Beachum forced Alejandro Villanueva to take over protecting the blind side the final 10 games of the season, it was a far from assumed he could handle the job.
Credit Villanueva, who only started playing offensive tackle at the professional level last season, for having a solid year that will force the Steelers to make a hard call with Beachum about to enter free agency.
The loss of Suisham devastated the team early, and it could be argued it cost them a win in the season opener against New England and absolutely cost them a victory at home against Baltimore courtesy of some crippling misses by Josh Scobee. It was not until Chris Boswell was signed that the kicking issues created with the loss of Suisham were overcome.
Although “just” a kicker, Boswell might be the story of the season. Boswell would make 29 of 32 attempts and it should not be overlooked that his strong leg meant more touchbacks on kickoffs. It’s a shame an injury will almost certainly cost Suisham his job, but with the way Boswell performed it almost assuredly has.
Finally the job that veteran back DeAngelo Williams did filling in for one of the best running back in the NFL for most of the season was nothing short of amazing. At 32, many wondered (including yours truly) if Williams could be expected to handle the duties of backing up Le’Veon Bell. Any doubts were erased after Williams rushed for 907 yards, scored 11 TD’s and added 40 receptions for the season.
The loss of Williams to a foot injury in the season finale was devastating and forced the Steelers to rely on Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman in the playoffs, something that proved costly in Denver.
*Sure, there might be some questions on the defensive side of the ball, but it can be safely assumed the Steelers are set at defensive end with Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt in place. Heyward did not put up gaudy stats in the Steelers defensive scheme, but he was a force all season and was the unit’s best player. It’s scary to think how good Tuitt can be has he heads into his third season. Both players are going to be a force for years to come.
The linebacking group improved as the season progressed, and the hope is that a healthy Ryan Shazier will spearhead the group next season. Shazier showed moments of brilliance, most notably in the playoffs, but the big question is can he stay on the field? Both Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree improved as the season wore on, and they will be crucial to the Steelers taking another step forward next season. Ageless wonder James Harrison had another solid year and added stability to a young linebacking group. Now, will he be back in 2016?
*We’ve run out of superlatives for Antonio Brown. He was the best offensive player in the NFL, and what is crazy is his 136-catch, 1,834-yard, 10 touchdown season could have been even better if Ben Roethlisberger did not miss the better part of five regular season games along the way. It’s fair to assume Brown would have become the first wide receiver to eclipse the 2,000 yard mark in league history along with breaking Marvin Harrison’s record of 143 catches in a season with Roethlisberger playing.
Add Martavis Bryant and his unreal talents into the mix and he and Brown could be on track for a historic 2016 season. That’s of course if they have a healthy Roethlisberger throwing the passes.
Photo credit: Bleacher report