PITTSBURGH (AP) _ When Darrius Heyward-Bey heard about Martavis Bryant’s one-year suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, the elder statesmen among the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers sent his talented but erratic teammate a note.
“I told him we have his back,” Heyward-Bey said. “I told him we can’t wait to see him in 2017.”
The Steelers will have to navigate through 2016 first, and do it without the player most capable of providing the big-play yin to All-Pro Antonio Brown’s relentless yang.
The 6-foot-4 Bryant scored 14 touchdowns in 21 games, his physicality and speed a difficult matchup for any defense that placed too much attention on the slippery Brown.
And now he’s gone, off trying to get his life back together after a second violation in less than a year.
“He was a big weapon for us, obviously,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “One of the best and had a chance to be one of the best in the NFL. He was growing and was getting better.
“It hurts. It’s unfortunate and it disappointed all of us, especially a guy I felt I was getting really close to and reached out to a lot when it came to his off-the-field stuff his first time around. So, very disappointing and we will miss him.”
Yet the Steelers didn’t panic when his discipline was announced in March. They opted not to go out and spend a high draft pick trying to find a capable replacement, confident they already had one in place in a group that includes Markus Wheaton, Sammie Coates and Heyward-Bey.
“We lost a player,” Coates said. “We all have to pick up the slack. Everybody has to work together and get it done.”
In a way, Pittsburgh already has plenty of practice. Bryant sat out the first six games of his rookie season in 2014 trying to get adjusted to life in the NFL and missed the first five games of 2015 while serving a four-game suspension and missing another one with an injury.
The Steelers went 3-2 in that stretch, which included being forced to turn to Michael Vick and Landry Jones after Roethlisberger sprained his left knee in Week 3 against St. Louis.
“We had an opportunity to see guys who were capable of coming in and producing,” Heyward-Bey said on Wednesday. “It’s the same way now. We’ve got some young guys in OTAs who may be able to help us in the fall.”
Pittsburgh took a flier on Demarcus Ayers in the seventh round, though his best chance at making the team is as a kick returner. The Steelers signed tight end Ladarius Green from San Diego and tasked him with replacing retired Heath Miller.
Green’s size and quickness give Pittsburgh another added dimension, though the best chance at replicating Bryant’s game-breaking ability may be Coates.
Taken in the third round in 2015, Coates’ first season was bumpy at best. He only suited up seven times during the regular season over concerns about his conditioning and caught all of one pass.
He provided a glimpse of his potential, however, while getting extended playing time in the divisional round of the playoffs against Denver while Brown dealt with a concussion.
Coates hauled in two passes against the NFL’s best defense, including an electric 37-yard catch-and-run.
“I built confidence the whole season, going through practices and working hard every day,” Coates said. “I really didn’t have that build of confidence, because I gained it every day through the season. When the playoff game came, I had to step up and show that I was capable.”
The key for Coates will be carrying that momentum forward. He overhauled his offseason training regiment, running into Heyward-Bey frequently at the team facility over the winter and early spring. His development could be critical as Pittsburgh forges ahead _ for now _ without Bryant.
“I think he would help us,” Roethlisberger said. “But I absolutely think we can be as dynamic.”