No team is going to look entirely flawless for an entire four game preseason schedule, but the six-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers sure looked sloppy for much of Sunday night's 34-17 loss to the Denver Broncos. With a number of roster spots still hanging in the balance heading into the team's final preseason tilt against the Carolina Panthers, here's one man's opinion of who hurt and who helped their respective chances at securing their jobs or starting roles for the 2010 regular season.
Maurkice Pouncey - Pittsburgh's first round draft pick from this past April was not exactly dominant against Broncos nose tackle Jamal Williams on Sunday. But who truly is? Wiliams is an absolute beast of a human being and Pouncey more than held his own from his center position. I'm really not thrilled to see a conssumate veteran like Justin Hartwig potentially be jettisoned out of town so late in the preseason that it's tough to stick with a new team. But hey, what can you do? Personal feelings and emotions have to be left at the door in a business like this. Pouncey looks like the real deal and an immediate upgrade at one of the most unheralded positions in all of football.
Jonathan Dwyer - As was pointed out by one of my favorite roster analysts, datruth4life, in a recent thread, the race for the fifth and final RB spot may be between Dwyer and Frank Summers. After not showing much of anything during the team's first two preseason games (injuries are partly to blame), Dwyer showed some signs of life last night against the Broncos. The former Georgia Tech back rushed for 89 yards on 13 carries. His final rushing output doesn't quite paint the entire picture of Dwyer's performance unfortunately. He missed several blocking assignments. The question now becomes which of the two offers more on special teams, and in short-yardage situations. Summers has hardly looked like a world beater on ST or in pass protection, but he may be just a bit more seasoned in other facets of the game besides mere rushing acumen to hold Dwyer off. At least this year. It's safe to assume that Dwyer won't be cut following his performance last night. Whether or not he earns a helmet or is jettisoned to the practice squad remains to be seen.
Crezdon Butler - The sixth round draft pick out of Clemson continues to be a pleasant surprise this camp and preseason. Butler did get beat for a touchdown, but he didn't exactly make a mistake on the play. Perfect offense beats good defense any day of the week, and twice on Sunday. Butler did though make an impressive pick in the second half, and continues to prove that he's not just the raw physical specimen that some thought he was heading into the draft. Instead, Butler's shown some nice instincts and a fairly impressive understanding of his assignments. Injuries to the guys in front of him on the depth chart are the only way he sees significant playing time this year, but it's safe to say that the Steelers are going to want to stash away Butler, develop him a bit further, then hope that they've found a diamond in the rough in future years.
Tony Hills - The 2008 draft pick out of Texas hardly set the world on fire with his play last night, but he did again perform admirably. Hills has all but locked up a roster spot in my mind this preseason. I've been a believer in him through his struggles, so I personally am quite pleased to see him make some progress in what could have been his last opportunity to do so this summer.
Lawrence Timmons - I've been harping this same theme about Timmons for two years now - be patient, the kid's only 24 years old! Timmons has had to grow up some - both physically and mentally since arriving in Pittsburgh in 2008 as a raw 20 year old. Let that sink in though once more. Timmons came to the Steelers not yet even legal drinking age. Sure, he looked more toned and further along in his maturation than do most 25 year olds, but I don't care who you are, you're just not fully mature at that age. Nor are you at 22 or 23 even. Timmons is just now hitting his peak physical window, and all I can say is Look Out NFL.
David Johnson - Not much here, but after Johnson struggled with holding on to routine catches during OTAs and mini-camps, Johnson helped his cause with his nice, fluid catch and run during the first half of Sunday night's game. Johnson's roster spot is now 100% safe in my mind. Not only that, he could very well see him fazed into the No. 2 tight end role in place of Spaeth as the season progresses.
Dennis Dixon - No shocker with this selection. Dixon missed a golden opportunity to cement his front runner status as the team's starting quarterback to start the year. Now, after struggling mightily against the Broncos, Mike Tomlin and his coaching staff may just have to turn to the more experienced Byron Leftwich for the season opener against the Falcons. Is it fair for Dixon to potentially lose out on an opportunity to shine in Pittsburgh based on his performance last night, particularly when Leftwich didn't exactly fare much better when his name was called? Maybe not. But that's the nature of this business, and Dixon certainly can't say that he wasn't given an opportunity to prove himself while running with the 1s on Sunday night. Too bad. You all know how badly I wanted to see him seize the moment and earn the nod. Something tells me though that we'll still see him under center at some point before Big Ben returns, presumably for Week 6.
Antonio Brown - It's been gone over here already. Brown's decision to field a punt at the 2 yard line last night was bone-headed, and perhaps symbolic of that 'cocky' demeanor that Ed Bouchette alluded to in a recent interview here on BTSC. Still, I don't think that mistake costs him the punt returning duties. Instead, I think it's just fodder for the coaching staff to get on Brown to be more intelligent out there on the football field if he hopes to have a job in this league.
Trai Essex - Yikes. Poor showing by the veteran offensive lineman. Because of his positional versatility, I don't think Essex will be cut. But I do think that he's a longshot to start the year as the starter at right guard following his performance against the Broncos.
Keenan Lewis - Stupid deadball mistakes won't fly in the NFL, and certainly not on a team with championship aspirations. Lewis not only got beat several times, he overreacted emotionally after the play and cost his team field position while giving the opposition a spark. Not good. Lewis' spot on this roster is safe, I believe. But he'll have a short leash on him for the time being while Tomlin makes sure that he's not prone to similarly unacceptable mental mistakes in the future.
A few other notables for m before turning the floor over to you all:
* Hines Ward - I know he doesn't have to prove anything, but just seeing him make a few plays made me feel warm and fuzzy. I'm still concerned that he's going to have a hard time replicating his numbers from the past two seasons, but for now, I'm back to 100% convinced that he'll still make a significant contribution for this year's Steelers' offense.
* James Harrison - Beastly. Kyle Orton, not smart.
* Daniel Sepulveda - Leaving his kickoffs aside (which were again just so-so), props to Sepulveda for a fine effort punting the football. 5 punts, 48.2 yards average. Good stuff. We may just need him to have a Shane Lechler type year, too, especially early on in the season.