On the surface, for most teams, ‘next man up’ is nothing more than three words of an overused cliche. For the Steelers, it transformed from an idea to a belief to an expectation, through the performance of one backup at a time. When Maurkice Pouncey went down for the year in preseason, Cody Wallace stepped in for him and was far more than adequate. Then Shaun Suisham went down and Chris Boswell eventually was brought in off the street. If those injuries weren’t enough, Le’Veon Bell was lost for the season during the game that Ben Roethlisberger returned, and was relieved by DeAngelo Williams. After 907 yards and 11 touchdowns, Williams went down to an ankle/foot injury in the last game of the season, and in came Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman. Michael Vick and Landry Jones held serve while Ben was out for four and a half games, after backup Bruce Gradkowski went down for the year in preseason. Roethlisberger even came in to relieve Landry Jones, when Jones got injured early in a game against Cleveland. It’s amazing to see how the belief in next man up spread throughout the roster. Every man who stepped up made the next guy want to do the same.
As each man stepped in for an injured starter and kept things rolling, so did the Steelers. All told, the Steelers had eleven players that were lost to the injured reserve list for the season, including Maurkice Pouncey, Le’Veon Bell, Shaun Suisham, Kelvin Beachum, and Bruce Gradkowski. Between injuries and suspension, the Steelers were without Ben Roethlisberger and other key players for another additional 22.5 games. How many people wrote the Steelers off as the body count continued to climb? First, it was that the Steelers’ playoff hopes were pretty much dead when Roethlisberger went down. Then, when Bell went down, the Steelers might be lucky to finish .500 at best. At the beginning of the season, before all the injuries, the offense was going to have to carry the defense until they got going. The bottom line is, through it all, the Steelers pulled together and outlasted the toughest schedule in the NFL to finish 10-6, earning a second straight trip to the postseason. No team played with more heart in 2015 than the Pittsburgh Steelers and no team is set up better to win a Lombardi Trophy in 2016.
In the face of their postseason loss, the Steelers enter the offseason having answered quite a few questions on defense. Several players, such as Ross Cockrell and Brandon Boykin, helped stabilize and improve the pass coverage after a few consecutive games where the secondary got torched by a series of backup quarterbacks. At linebacker, several players have shown signs of taking the next step in their development. Ryan Shazier, over the last half of the season, has started to become the player that the Steelers envisioned, by making plays all over the field in the same fashion that Troy Polamalu used to. His hit on Giovanni Bernard in the Wild Card game seems to have announced his arrival. Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree both appear ready to take their games to the next level in 2016. While neither had the sack numbers it was assumed they would, both made more than their share of plays. Defensive end Stephen Tuitt made even more strides this season and is a legitimate Pro Bowl candidate for 2016. His one-handed sack, while reaching around his blocker, during the Wild Card game is his signature play to date and shows what a force he can be.
Next season, with everyone back and healthy, the offense will be the most dangerous one in the league. Sadly though, the Steelers only got to play a little less than three quarters of one game this season with Roethlisberger, Bell, and Brown together on the field. Sammie Coates, with his performance in the Divisional playoff game, just may have passed Darius Heyward-Bey on the depth chart, which would make the wide receiver group even better next season. On defense, the Steelers will get to finally see what they have with Senquez Golson at cornerback. Assuming they bring back Cockrell and Boykin and if they can add another cornerback in the draft (along with a quality nose tackle), the Steelers could very well be looking at a top 10 defense next season. Pair that with their explosive offense, and the Steelers are primed to be one of the AFC deepest teams and one of the favorites to contend for the Super Bowl. The Steelers’ organization, from the Rooneys on down to the 53rd man on the roster, should be very proud of what they accomplished this season under such challenging circumstances. While the Super Bowl is always the goal, there may not be another team in the NFL that would have made it as far as the Steelers did this year, losing the quality of talent that the Steelers lost. In the process, they developed depth for what should be an exciting 2016 season.