We know the usual cliches when it comes to the strength of an NFL roster: “Injuries are a part of the game.” “Next man up.” “Football is a battle of attrition.”
When trying to sum up the injuries and suspensions that leave the Pittsburgh Steelers without five of their projected starters for their Week 1 matchup against the Washington Redskins — six if you count Markus Wheaton in a three wide receiver formation — the easier way to describe that same situation for the Steelers might simply be: “It’s all in the game.” Given the team’s current state of affairs, the only way you could say it any better would be if you were Michael Kenneth Williams in “The Wire,” wearing cornrows and a bulletproof vest while holding a shotgun.
But make no mistake about it: this roster already faces the same challenges to their depth in Week 1 that they faced during the 2015 postseason. And to make matters worse, they’ll need it to hold for a much longer period of time.
Le’Veon Bell’s three-game suspension means they will have to rely on DeAngelo Williams at running back with Fitzgerald Toussaint at the ready if Williams gets hurt. Martavis Bryant’s suspension for the entire season made it more incumbent upon Wheaton and Sammie Coates to fill the void at wide receiver, at least before it was announced that Wheaton will miss Monday night’s game with a shoulder injury. Now that responsibility will be spread amongst Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Eli Rogers to carry the load.
Ladarius Green was signed as a free agent to help alleviate Bryant’s loss as well, providing a vertical option from the tight end position, but an ankle injury (or concussion-related headaches, take your pick) forces Jesse James to play a starting role in his second season. Not to mention with fullback Roosevelt Nix unavailable for Monday night with a back injury, backup tight end David Johnson will likely be used somewhat in an H-back role. That said, expect to see some two tight end formations with shifting and motion from Johnson at some point.
The offensive line will be without their top reserve, Cody Wallace, with a knee injury for Week 1, leaving the triumvirate of Chris Hubbard, Ryan Harris and B.J. Finney as the men who will be on stand-by should one of the starters be forced to leave the game.
The defense might have fewer key players unavailable for this game, but their importance can’t go unnoticed. An injured Senquez Golson will shine the light on a pair of rookies in Sean Davis and Artie Burns to step in at cornerback if needed, or even newly-acquired Justin Gilbert as he continues to get acclimated. That scenario won’t be made any easier given the matchup against a Washington Redskins passing attack where quarterback Kirk Cousins will have receivers Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson, Jamison Crowder, and possibly rookie Josh Doctson (listed as questionable) at his disposal, along with tight ends Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis.
Bud Dupree’s surgery on a torn core muscle means Arthur Moats will have to fill in on the weak side for a group of outside linebackers whose expected production could be in doubt throughout the season. Though Moats could take advantage of a matchup with Redskins’ right tackle Morgan Moses, it’s not something we could come to expect every week before Dupree returns from injured reserve.
Those losses listed above would be difficult for any team during the course of a season, let alone entering Week 1. But for now, and perhaps the next few to several weeks, the Steelers will have to rely on those standing in the gap and hope their situation doesn’t get any worse, or else their road through the 2016 season could get rough before the rubber indeed meets the road.