Ron Cook: Despite painful loss Sunday at Denver, some Steelers already looking toward 2016
January 19, 2016 12:00 AM
“Steelers fans everywhere should be very excited about us next year,” DeAngelo Williams said. “When we get the gang back together and everybody is healthy and we go 1-2 deep at every position, it’s going to be nasty.”
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The following message is brought to you by DeAngelo Williams, Steelers running back.
“It’s a public-service announcement to the NFL,” Williams said. “To let them know we’re coming.”
This was Sunday night. The Steelers’ 2015 season had ended about an hour earlier in a 23-16 loss to the Denver Broncos in an AFC divisional playoff game. Williams was looking ahead to the 2016 season.
“Steelers fans everywhere should be very excited about us next year,” he said. “When we get the gang back together and everybody is healthy and we go 1-2 deep at every position, it’s going to be nasty.”
Nasty in a good way, of course.
That was the general feeling among the Steelers after the loss. There was plenty of disappointment because they knew they didn’t play their best game in the Mile High altitude. The special teams were awful. Fitzgerald Toussaint lost a fourth-quarter fumble with the team driving to add to its 13-12 lead. The defense, which played a strong game for three quarters, couldn’t make one final stop.
“We let this one get away,” offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert said.
“It [stinks] that we didn’t accomplish our goal,” defensive end Cam Heyward said.
But there also was a level of excitement in the Steelers locker room, anticipation for next season. The players knew it had been a good year. They were right in that thinking. It was a good year. A 10-6 record. Wins over final four teams Arizona and Denver. A dramatic, last-minute playoff win in Cincinnati, the franchise’s first postseason win in five years.
Despite an unbelievable run of suspensions and injuries, the Steelers were one game short of reaching the AFC championship.
“That’s what I tried to reiterate to the team,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “With everything that happened, we made it here. A lot of teams would have folded. We didn’t. I’m really proud of the effort and that next-man-up mentality.”
The players liked this team. Mike Tomlin liked it a lot. The players never quit on him. Not after a crushing loss Dec. 27 in Baltimore. Not after the wild-card playoff game in Cincinnati looked so hopeless at the end. Not Sunday after the Broncos took a 23-13 lead with 53 seconds left. That’s why Tomlin was in tears after the game when he addressed the squad.
“It hurts all of us,” Heyward said. “We know that this team will never be together again like it is now.”
That’s the nature of pro sports. There is change every season. Free agency dictates that. So does the NFL’s salary cap. So does the players’ performance.
But the Steelers should lose relatively little from this team and add plenty next season if only because they’ll get two significant players — All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey and All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell — back healthy.
Guard Ramon Foster, cornerback William Gay and offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum, who missed much of the season with a knee injury, are among the free agents. It’s believed all are wanted back, although it’s probably unrealistic to think all will be back. The Steelers need to save some cap room for new contracts for Bell and Pro Bowl guard David DeCastro, who are signed through next season. Linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Jarvis Jones also are signed through 2016.
The return of Pouncey, Bell and Bell’s backup, Williams, will lift morale. Pouncey missed all season with an ankle injury. Bell missed much of it because of a marijuana suspension and a knee injury. Williams missed the two postseason games with a foot injury.
The Steelers also were without their MVP — wide receiver Antonio Brown — against the Broncos because of a concussion. Talk about sad history repeating itself. They lost their playoff game a year ago to the Baltimore Ravens without their 2014 MVP — Bell — who was out with a knee injury.
Roethlisberger, who missed four games this season and parts of five others with a variety of injuries, played Sunday with a bad shoulder. Somehow, he still threw for 339 yards, his personal best in a postseason game and the third most in franchise history.
It was not quite enough.
“One of these years, we’re going to go into the playoffs healthy,” Steelers president Art Rooney II said as the team prepared for its long flight home.
Maybe next year.
Every team talks about next year, right? But in the Steelers case, that talk has merit. It has a chance to be a fun year, a nasty year, a great year, perhaps even a super year.
Back to Williams’ PSA for the final word:
“It’s unfortunate we didn’t get where we wanted to be, our final destination, Santa Clara [for Super Bowl 50],” he said. “But this is a great starting point for us. We’ve got a lot to look forward to.”
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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