Black & Yellow Without Key Players Early On
Pittsburgh Steelers fans (and fantasy fans) were licking their chops at the teams prospects for 2015. With Ben Roethlisberger signing a new contract, more or less assuring he finishes his career in black and gold, Le’Veon Bell recovering from the knee hyperextension that ruled him out of the Wildcard round of last seasons playoffs, and Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and even Markus Wheaton ready to roll, it wouldn’t shock anyone if the Steelers did in fact achieve offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s goal of 30 points a game in the coming season.
While still possible, that goal made need to be put on hold for the first half of the season.
In April, Bell was slapped with a three game suspension after a drug related arrest in August 2014 -though the ban has now been reduced to two games – ruling him out of the start of the 2015 campaign. In week two of the preseason, All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey broke his fibula, effectively ruling him out of the lineup for the first ten weeks of the season , and mere hours before catching three passes for 138 yards in the Steelers defeat to the Buffalo Bills, Bryant was handed a four game suspension for violations of the substances of abuse policy.
Suddenly the garden doesn’t look so rosy.
On paper, these are all significant losses, especially the unavailability of Martavis Bryant. In the first six weeks of the 2014 season, Roethlisberger was languishing as QB15 in fantasy terms, with the team treading water at 3-3. After Bryant’s insertion to the starting lineup, Big Ben was fantasy’s number four quarterback, with the rookie posting WR14 numbers over the same period. Averaging over 21 yards a reception, Bryant scored eight touchdowns on just 26 receptions.
While the suspension came as a surprise to many, the Steelers must have had some inkling that Bryant would be missing time. Roethlisberger told SiriusXM NFL radio at the start of August that he saw Markus Wheaton as the “Steelers breakout player of the year“. Wheaton certainly has big shoes to fill, and in the past he’s given very little indication that he can get his feet into them. While averaging 3.3 receptions per game in 2014 compared to Bryants 2.6, and boasted a superior catch rate (63.9% to 54.2%), Wheaton flashed very little as a big play threat, with his 2.9 yards after the catch good (or worse) for 94th amongst qualifying wide receivers according to Pro Football Focus. Other receiving options, apart from the incredibly consistent Antonio Brown, are the perpetually disappointing Darrius Heyward-Bey, owner of 3 receptions last season, David Nelson who was unable to hold down a roster spot on the 2014 New York Jets and rookie Sammie Coates. Coates boasted a remarkably similar yards per reception number as Bryant in his last year in college (21.8), but according to Alex Brown in the Optimum Scouting Draft Guide, Coates pro comparison is another Steelers teammate…namely Heyward-Bey. To expect him to replace Bryant in the first month of the season, and to have any fantasy relevance in doing so, is to invite disappointment.
In Bell’s absence, the Steelers will turn to former Carolina Panther DeAngelo Williams, signed in the offseason after the only pro team he’s ever played on finally grew weary of him. The Steelers ranked 21st in terms of runs in the first half of games AND in runs on 1st down, according to Football Outsiders, so its unlikely that Williams is going to be expected to be a workhorse in the two games Bell will be missing. Bell averaged 18 rushing attempts per game in 2014, with over five receptions per outing. In his truncated 2014 campaign, Williams saw just over ten rushes per game, and was a virtual non factor as a receiver. Even when he was last fit (if ever such a time existed) in 2013, his per game attempts averaged out at under 14, with less than two receptions. If the Steelers are to demonstrate any commitment to the ground game until they welcome Bell back, and don’t want to run the risk of Williams encountering injury (Sports Injury Predictor have him as a medium risk given his early workload), it is very likely that their offensive Swiss Army Knife Dri Archer to chip in with some rushing attempts (he averaged three rushes per game in 2014) as well as Josh Harris, who averaged 2.8 yards per carry in Bell’s absence in the wildcard game. If you are a Bell owner in fantasy, you should look elsewhere for his replacement in your lineup until he returns. There is no real handcuff in Pittsburgh.
The loss of Bell, the absence of Pouncey and the expected low output of Williams make the ground game in Pittsburgh one to avoid for the short term, but what about the passing game? Should we lower our expectations of Big Ben until all his pieces are back in place? Roethlisberger is currently the sixth QB off the draft boards in fantasy, according to Fantasy Pros, a spot behind Drew Brees and three behind a Peyton Manning who looks a shell of his former self so far this preseason. Given that Antonio Brown is still upright, there is no real need to panic in the seasons opening weeks.
If Heath Miller can contribute more than his 4 reception average of 2014, he could offer some genuine streaming value in the first month of the season, but over the course of the season Roethlisberger will produce at the level those drafting him ahead of his ADP rivals (like your author) expect him to do so. Given the weakness of the Steelers defense, there is a good chance that Big Ben will be amongst the busiest quarterbacks in terms of pass attempts this season, even when Bell comes back into the fold. In terms of fantasy appeal, some small concerns should be present in owners of Steelers players throughout September, but as long as you’ve not gone crackers and drafted Bell Brown AND Ben, your team should survive until the leaves start to turn brown. As for Steelers fans in reality….Well, thats really for others to comment on.
Neil’s been playing fantasy football for ten years, including a victory in 2014 in a league arranged by NFL.com Fantasy expert Adam Rank. Huge Philadelphia Eagles fan, and follows the fortunes of the England cricket team, usually with his head in his hands for both. Neil lives with his fiancé Kate and their daughter Zoe. He is an atrocious Words with Friends player.