In his first public comments since the four-game suspension to Martavis Bryant was upheld by the NFL, Coach Mike Tomlin talked about the disappointment he feels right now while promising support and issuing a challenge to his young player for the immediate future.
"My comments (about Bryant's suspension) are similar to those of Kevin Colbert," said Tomlin at the start of his news conference today. "We are disappointed that it has come to this, but while we are disappointed, we are going to remain supportive in whatever actions that are necessary in terms of him moving past the actions that caused the suspension. We are committed to that, but more importantly than that, he has to be committed to that."
Bryant, drafted on the fourth round by the Steelers in 2014, was inactive through the first seven weeks of his rookie season, but when he did earn himself a spot on game days he made an impact. Bryant caught six touchdown passes in his first four games, and he finishes 2014 with 26 catches for 549 yards (21.1 average) and eight touchdowns.
Because of that production, there were high expectations for Bryant going into his second professional season, but he would end up running afoul of the NFL's substance abuse policy.
"We are not surprised by it. We have known about the possibility of it for some time," said Tomlin. "In a lot of ways it directed our course of action throughout the offseason, specifically drafting Sammie Coates because of the potential of this event. So we are going to deal with it the best we can. Again, I am disappointed, not only for him on a personal level, but he let his teammates down, this organization down, his family and friends, and obviously Steelers Nation."
Tomlin said the team is still determining what plan it will take to help Bryant through this, "but I promise you that we will for him in terms of how he moves forward."
The terms of Bryant's suspension are as follows: He is permitted to report to the team facility every day, where he can work out, get treatment, eat, and attend meetings. He is not allowed to participate in games or in any on-field practices, nor is he allowed to watch those on-field practices.
With Bryant removed from the offensive equation for the first four games – at New England, vs. San Francisco, at St. Louis, and vs. Baltimore – the group of wide receivers will be thinned considerably. Ben Roethlisberger still will have Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton available, and for the multiple-receiver packages, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Coates appear as the obvious candidates to fill in for Bryant.
Heyward-Bey entered the NFL as the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft, by the Oakland Raiders, and his career receiving totals don't measure up to that status. With 64 starts with the Raiders and Indianapolis Colts from 2009-2013, Heyward-Bey came to the Steelers on a one-year contract as an unrestricted free agent with 169 receptions for 2,380 yards and 12 touchdowns.
With the Steelers last season, Heyward-Bey saw little action on offense once Bryant developed and teamed with Brown, Wheaton, Heath Miller, and Le'Veon Bell to give Ben Roethlisberger a full complement of receiving options, but he proved valuable on special teams and in the meeting room. Tomlin praised his contributions in those areas whenever asked, and the Steelers re-signed him to another one-year contract.
"He's really done a nice job," said Tomlin about Heyward-Bey. "This is his second lap around the track with us, and he understands how we do business here. He displays that in his actions. He's highly conditioned and is a very versatile guy. He's capable of doing multiple things and is an integral part of our special teams unit. I have a lot of confidence in him."
As for Coates, his playing time early in the season figures to be based on his understanding of the offense and the particular game plan put in for the upcoming opponent. In other words, expecting a lot from Coates early, say the duration of Bryant's suspension, doesn't make a lot of sense.
"(Coates) is going to have an opportunity to continue to play. With that play we expect increased detail in his work, and better finish, all the things that you look for in a young and developing guy," said Tomlin. "I've liked the work that he has done to this point. In general, his arrow is pointing up. And I expect that to continue to be the case as we look at this final opportunity to state a case for his role in 2015."
But before the Steelers can turn the page on this preseason, there is the matter of Thursday night's game against the Carolina Panthers at Heinz Field. Steelers-Panthers has closed the teams' preseasons every summer since 2003, and so it will be again in 48 hours.
"This has become a preseason tradition for us, playing Carolina in the last preseason game," said Tomlin. "It's the last opportunity for many men to state a case for themselves, or to be a part of this thing, or to define their roles within this thing as we move forward. We respect that. We respect that more than with our words but also with our actions. We have a lot of guys vying for spots. I look forward to watching them meet the challenge and show what they are capable of."
Tomlin said a lot of "established guys" won't play at all against the Panthers, or will get very little playing time in the game.
Tomlin also addressed other issues during his news conference:
On the trade for veteran kicker Josh Scobee:
"We had a need, and that's a big-time position. You get an opportunity to get a unique and established guy like that, and what he did for over a decade in one place, his resume is his resume. It speaks for itself. You get an opportunity to do that, it is something you should strongly consider. We did that. Obviously we felt good about it. We thought the positives outweighed the potential negatives, so we did it."
On an assessment of the defense's performance during the preseason:
"I don't know if I can give a fair assessment of it. We haven't seen it in its totality. I think that it's just an element of preseason play. Oftentimes if you are looking to feel good about something, you can convince yourself of that. If you are looking to scare yourself regarding something, you can convince yourself of that. I am neither. We will see when we get to New England a few Thursdays from now."