PITTSBURGH — The last two Januarys, the Pittsburgh Steelers walked into the stadium for a playoff game hoping there were enough warm bodies to go around.
Two years ago against Baltimore, running back Le’Veon Bell watched his hyperextended knee all wrapped up as the Ravens pulled off a mild upset in the wild-card round. Last winter in Denver, Bell was joined in sweatsuits by backfield mate DeAngelo Williams and Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown, all of whom looked on while a game effort by their backups wasn’t enough to overcome one last fourth quarter comeback by Peyton Manning .
That won’t be the case on Sunday when the AFC North champions host Miami. The Steelers (11-5) enter the postseason with a luxury they’ve lacked since their last Super Bowl run six years ago: options. Lots of them.
“We got a lot of guys healthy,” wide receiver Sammie Coates said. “We’ve got a lot of guys out there that haven’t played (in the playoffs). Le’Veon Bell’s never played in the playoffs. We’ve got guys going to be hungry for this game.”
Perhaps no one more than Bell. Pittsburgh’s seven-game winning streak to end the regular season coincided with the versatile Bell’s emergence as one of the league’s most dynamic players. He led the NFL in average yards from scrimmage, the ever-patient, ever-potent yin to Brown’s dazzling yang.
Yet the Steelers have proven in recent weeks they’re far deeper than their high wattage stars. Wide receivers Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers all made an impact over the final month.
Rogers made pivotal plays in the final stages of a Week 16 victory over Baltimore that locked up Pittsburgh’s second division title in three years. Ayers, a rookie who spent the first 13 weeks on the practice squad, caught the first touchdown pass of his career in Sunday’s regular season finale against Cleveland, a game the Steelers won when Hamilton made a diving grab in the back corner of the end zone with 2:57 left in overtime to extend Pittsburgh’s winning streak to seven.
The list goes on and on. Coates — who led the NFL in yards per reception through the first five weeks before breaking two fingers on his left hand then compounded it by tweaking his hamstring in practice just before Christmas — is hopeful to be back on the field Sunday. Tight end Ladarius Green could make it back after missing the last two games with a concussion. And wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey hauled in a 46-yard catch against the Browns and also made a spectacular hustle play to prevent a touchdown when he knocked the ball out of Cleveland cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun’s hands as the defensive back reached for the goal line.
There might not be enough hats to go around. The best kind of first-world NFL problems for a team that looks like a legitimate threat to top-seed New England if it can keep its bold-faced players on the field, and maybe some of the not-so bold faced ones too.
“With all the guys we have in the receiving room, if we can find a way to make it easier for AB, make it easier for Bell (that’s good),” Ayers said. “If all of us get going, we can make a run.”
Tuitt says he'll be ready: The offense isn’t the only group that’s found a way to stay out of the trainer’s room. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt said Monday he will “definitely” be ready to face the Dolphins after sitting out the final two games with a sprained knee.
“I’m stronger than ever,” Tuitt said. “I believe I can make an impact on the game and do that by being on the field.”
Pittsburgh struggled against the run in Tuitt’s absence, surrendering 122 yards on the ground to the Ravens and 231 to Cleveland. It’s not exactly the best way to go into the rematch against Miami, who piled up 222 yards on the ground behind Jay Ajayi in a 30-15 romp on Oct. 16 that sent the Steelers into a month-long swoon that nearly derailed their season completely.
Yet Pittsburgh steadied itself behind Bell and a defense rejuvenated by the rapid maturation of rookies Sean Davis, Artie Burns and Javon Hargrave. All three will be among 19 Steelers making their playoff debuts. It’s a stage Coates found himself thrust into in Denver, when he caught two passes for 67 yards against the Broncos while trying to fill the massive void left by Brown. It wasn’t quite enough to propel the Steelers to the AFC Championship game. Still, it also provided tangible evidence of how dangerous Pittsburgh can be even when it’s not at full strength.
That won’t be a problem on Sunday.
“We’ve got a great team, we’ve got great players in the wide receiver room,” Coates said. “If some guys can’t go, another guy step up and do the job. That’s what we work for. The big moments. The big opportunities.”