The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.
Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.
But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the optimist’s take on the following question.
Question: With the opening created by Martavis Bryant’s suspension, will Sammie Coates be able to break out in his second season?
The Steelers made it no secret that a large portion of their interest in adding a wide receiver during the draft relatively early last season was the fact that they had very real concerns about Martavis Bryant’s long-term viability, concerns that are coming to light in a very real way.
On the back of serving a four-game suspension to open his second season last year for multiple failed drug tests, Bryant has already been suspended for the entirety of his third season in 2016 after failed to report for drug tests, and has entered rehab, declining to appeal the suspension.
While the Steelers still have enviable depth with Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, and Darrius Heyward-Bey, who served as the team’s three featured receivers during Bryant’s previous suspension, having Bryant in the mix with everything that he is able to do with the football in his hands or in the air was seen by many as the component that made a very good offensive unit a championship-caliber one.
The team may not put a great deal of pressure on him initially, but one would had to think that they are expecting major strides from second-year wide receiver Sammie Coates, the player that they added in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft after an offseason’s worth of scouring the wide receiver class.
Coming out, and especially after he landed in Pittsburgh, Coates drew a lot of comparisons to Bryant, both of whom were regarded as size and speed prospects who served the function of big play threats in college, but who, at the professional level, needed a lot of polish still.
Bryant was able to crack into the lineup by the seventh game of his rookie year, but in part because of his emergence, as well as Heyward-Bey’s increased role, Coates found himself buried at the bottom of the depth chart. He had just one catch for 11 yards in less than 40 snaps during the regular season.
But when Brown went down in the postseason, he was able to flash in the Divisional round, coming up with two big catch-and-run plays at key moments for explosive gains, demonstrating yards after the catch ability that Bryant had shown.
He also received some playing time in two-receiver sets in that game at times. He certainly has some more growing to do, but he showed he could play against a Super Bowl-winning defense, also drawing a pass interference during the game. He should take a major leap forward this offseason in terms of being comfortable in the offense, and that will give him the platform to make that leap forward to break out and seize that third receiver role, with some complementary work mixed in.