The Washington Redskins might catch another break for the season opener -- but it also should come with a warning. Yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be without receiver Martavis Bryant and now, according to ESPN, their absent list might include running back Le’Veon Bell thanks to a possible four-game suspension for a violation of the NFL's drug policy.
The Redskins host the Steelers in a Monday night game on Sept. 12. If Bell loses his appeal, the Steelers would be without one of the NFL’s top running backs in addition to a solid receiver. A Redskins defense that struggled to stop the run last season would be thankful; they ranked 31st in yards per carry allowed (4.8) in 2015. Bell averaged 4.92 yards per carry last season and 4.69 the previous year.
But keep in mind that Pittsburgh did not have either player for its first two games of 2015. The Steelers lost the opener to New England 28-21 but finished with 464 total yards when they beat San Francisco 43-18 with 453 total yards in Week 2.
And look at this: In the last eight games of 2015, played without Bell, the Steelers scored 30 or more points six times (in consecutive weeks as a matter of fact) and surpassed 500 total yards three times. However, they did have Bryant during this period, and he averaged 88 yards receiving.
Their run game was all over the place in the final eight games, with two contests of more than 150 yards and four with less than 60.
Still, backup running back DeAngelo Williams produced four 100-yard games during all of Bell’s absences -- including 127 vs. the Patriots -- and finished the season with 907 yards rushing. Williams is 33 and might not hold up over a long stretch, but for one game he can still produce; the Steelers also have Fitzgerald Toussaint.
Oh, and they also have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, sidelined for four games with a knee injury last year, and receiver Antonio Brown -- two of the best in the NFL at their respective positions. In the first two games last season, Brown caught a combined 20 passes for 328 yards and two scores. He’ll face a Redskins secondary that includes corners Josh Norman and Bashaud Breeland, so that should be an excellent matchup.
The Steelers, despite their troubles last season, still finished 10-6 and made the playoffs. Their defense ranked 21st in total yards, and 11th in points allowed per game as they steadily improved. They’re always a tough game regardless of who’s in the lineup -- and that will remain true in the opener. That doesn’t mean it’s OK if Washington loses; the Redskins would be helped by making a statement in the opener by beating a team that finished with a winning record in 2015. And, yes, you should beat a wounded team at home in the opener. But it does mean that, even with Bell and Bryant sidelined, Pittsburgh remains dangerous.