As we sit here on the eve of players reporting for the 2015 edition of training camp, there are an endless number of questions one could bring to the forefront about this season’s edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers. One of mine is taking a look at exactly which player the team cannot at any cost afford losing to injury.
Every year at training camps around the league, we see players going down with season-ending tears or breaks of all types. With an offense in place that looks to be at or near the top of the league, how would the dominoes fall if one of the major catalysts on it were to go down? Here is my list, on either side of the ball, of players the team can ill afford to lose as it looks to build on last season’s AFC North Championship.
Ben Roethlisberger – The undisputed leader of the team, Ben is obviously coming off the best season of his career, and has a fresh new mega-deal for his efforts. In the hierarchy of the team, if he were to go down to a severe, season-ender, the team’s chances of advancing to the playoffs for a second consecutive season would go right down with him. Granted, Bruce Gradkowski is one of the better backup quarterbacks in the league but nobody is going to mistake him for the second coming of Kurt Warner. If the captain of the ship goes down, the team goes with it. Teams would load the box against the running game, and as great as Bell is, this would negatively impact his numbers. The aerial attack would also falter as well, as Ben’s pocket presence and cannon arm, among many other things, are a far cry from Gradkowski. Roethlisberger is a true franchise quarterback and a severe injury to him would be absolutely crippling of this team’s hopes of playing deep into January and early February.
Le’Veon Bell – Bell’s All-Pro skill set can be summed up in one short word-dynamic. He is arguably the best all-around running back in the game and if there’s someone better, please show me the game film. His ability to run like a smaller back despite his large frame, coupled with his outstanding pass-catch abilities make him a true three-down back in this league. The team will already be finding out what it’s like minus the lead horse in the stable during the first few weeks of the season, as Bell serves his suspension.
Backup DeAngelo Williams was once one of the best backs in the league during his heyday, and despite his age, has minimal wear and tear on him due to his ex employer, the Carolina Panthers, employing more of a platoon approach in their backfield. Losing Bell, as we’ve seen before like the playoff loss, can be catastrophic. Although Roethlisberger is the pilot of the ship, Bell is the engine, as everything the team wants to do goes through him.
Antonio Brown – Brown, just like Bell, often finds his name tossed around when speaking of the best at his respective position in the league. Despite his size, and endless barrage of game plans devised at shutting him down, Brown continues to produce at an astronomical level. He is the favorite target of Roethlisberger as evidenced by the number of targets and catches over the last few seasons. If he were to go down with injury, much of the receiving burden would be placed on promising second-year wideout Martavis Bryant, who would receive a massive increase in targets.
Markus Wheaton would slide into the #2 role, with rookie Sammie Coates likely taking over in the slot. The youngster was mentioned in some draft circles as a potential first-rounder after torching SEC defenses with his big-play ability, so the sky appears to be the limit for him. An injury to Brown would obviously hurt significantly, but I believe the overall talent of the receiving corps has what it takes to withstand such a blow. This isn’t a diss to Brown at all, because he’s obviously an All-Pro talent. This is a testament to the strength of the Pittsburgh wideouts.
Lawrence Timmons – Although Timmons has a quiet demeanor and is unlike your stereotypical, loud, trash-talking Steelers’ linebacker, he is the leader of the Pittsburgh defense and after years of banner play, was finally recognized for it last season with his first Pro Bowl nod. He’s a do-it-all linebacker who is just as adept at shedding blocks and stuffing a running back as he is dropping into coverage or blitzing. Despite the team’s abundance at the inside linebacker spot, the team cannot effectively fill the role of Timmons with one player. Although second-year ILB Ryan Shazier has immense potential and is often listed as a breakout candidate heading into year 2, it may be too soon to anoint him as the second coming of James Farrior. If Timmons went down, the team would likely employ a platoon approach with the trio of Shazier, Sean Spence and Vince Williams.