Today's announcement that Le'Veon Bell's suspension would be set at three games for the 2015 season brings new discussions to be had for NFL fans, as well as Steelers fans.
While there will be discussions on the consistency of the NFL's punishments, or the gravity that marijuana usage should carry, or whether the NFL has a bias against the Steelers, none of that should be on the radar for Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and company. Instead, the primary emphasis for the organization needs to be: "What should we do now?"
Even though the team recently signed DeAngelo Williams in free agency, the team has to be concerned about not having Le'Veon Bell for almost a quarter of their 2015 season. This comes in a season where Pittsburgh is about to have the toughest schedule of any team in the NFL. Nine of their games next season will be against opponents who made the 2014-2015 playoffs and three of those opponents comprise all but one of the teams that made the AFC and NFC championship games last season. Pittsburgh will also have to play both the NFC champion Seattle Seahawks and the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in their own stadiums, making for an intense away schedule
The first three games of the season could include any of the tougher opponents on the Steelers 2015 schedule, which poses an additional problem to what the Steelers face without Bell. When Bell has played for the Steelers in his two-year career, the team is 19-10, not a bad record to have. Unfortunately when Bell doesn't play for the Steelers they are 0-4, with the most recent loss being against the Baltimore Ravens in the first round of the 2014-2015 playoffs.
Even if the first three games are against the lest talented opponents on their schedule, Bell's absence still makes those games very important. Should the Steelers lose to teams that may not provide as difficult a challenge as others, say the Cleveland Browns, the Oakland Raiders or the San Francisco 49ers, the Steelers would need wins in those games because it signifies tougher games will still be on the schedule ahead, and an 0-3 record going into those tougher games may be part of a story where the 2015 Steelers miss the playoffs.
So what should the Steelers do? It can't be expected that any of their current players can alone provide to the Steelers what Bell did last season. Bell accounted for over 2,000 all-purpose yards in 2014 and never fumbled, an accomplishment that no one in the NFL had done except for the great Walter Payton.
But with approximately five months before they must endure a maximum of three games without Bell, the Steelers have an opportunity to extensively prepare to win those three games knowing they will be missing one of the best offensive weapons in the NFL. They'll need a better course of action than picking up free agent running back Ben Tate and giving him a week to learn his role before starting him against the Ravens.
Staying the course with their current backfield is an option, but would be a dangerous one. Williams is an experienced back that could possibly be solid fill-in for Bell for a few games, but behind him are young players that haven't shown the Steelers a lot going into their second seasons with Harris and Archer. Williams will be 32 years old at the start of the season, and at his age a team should have a legitimate contingency plan for him being hurt for any part of those first three games. Though it's important for players to embrace the "next man up" mentality, it's also important for a team to be realistic about what the next man up can bring to the table. If the front office believes that Harris and Archer would make for an effective tandem behind Williams for those first three games, then they will need to make sure that will be the case come September.
However, it may benefit the team to add some support to that backfield in the coming draft. There would not need to be a reach in the first round for a player such as Todd Gurley out of Georgia, of course, but it would be wise to at least look at what options may be available to Pittsburgh in the middle rounds. Players such as Florida's Matt Jones, whom the Steelers have already met with, or even Bell's successor at Michigan State, Jeremy Langford, become reasonable options to add athleticism and talent to the team.
On top of his age and injury history, Williams is also not a major threat as a receiving running back, which was a major contribution that will be missed when Bell is not on the field. There are a number of options in the draft, such as Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Alabama's TJ Yeldon, or David Johnson of Northern Iowa. Bell provided 854 receiving yards in 2014 and was often the perfect escape option for Ben Roethlisberger to shoot a quick pass to and keep drives alive. Having a player with even some of that ability would be extremely valuable in those games without Bell.
The team does need to keep their eyes on the prize of the best player available in their draft selections, as well as be looking for pass rushers and defensive backs to bolster a defense that is looking to rebound after struggling through 2014. There should not be an effort to break the bank in this draft for a running back, but there should be a reasonable consideration to adding another weapon to the backfield to help prepare for the absence of Bell. The Steelers could also benefit by having another young option in the backfield that could be successful even in games when Bell is active. The Cincinnati Bengals certainly benefited by selecting Jeremy Hill in the second round of the 2014 draft despite the impressive performance of Giovani Bernard in his rookie 2013 season. Though it seems doubtful that the Steelers would make a reach for running back in the second round, considering their new predicament, and their experience with unavailable running backs of late, investing a pick in a running back between the third and fifth rounds is a lot more foreseeable.