The last time I ventured to FedEx Field, the Steelers were playing the Redskins the night before President Obama would be elected. There are some people who say that because the Steelers won that game, a Democrat was destined to be elected President; and, since I work for the Government, I can assure you that this theory is true, and is also the main reason our dear owner is Ambassador to Ireland.
I returned tonight to watch a preseason game that even in July I did not expect to take place. I attended the game with my fiancée, which had special significance because one of our first dates was the 2008 game mentioned above. It was great to see a game this early in preseason, where most of the players are rusty and the rookies are out to prove themselves. I came away from the game with a few solidified thoughts about certain Steeler veterans (William Gay) and with a new interest in others (Miguel Chavis). I was mocked by other fans for writing my thoughts about every play of the game, but I hope you all find some useful insight from my seat in section 220.
The game started with the same type of play-calling we have all come to know in the Bruce Arians era: run with Mendenhall for minimal gain, Great catch by Antonio Brown for 19 yards (though Ben hurt his hand a little on this play and the ball wobbled a bit), dump off to Rashard when the play broke off, then a deep bomb to a streaking Mike Wallace. As usual, Wallace had a good 5-10 yards on his defender, but Ben overthrew him; this was a clear example of how the lockout will hurt teams early on, as these two are obviously rusty and just short of being on the same page. I will note that Ben overthrowing Wallace after just hurting his hand is probably a very good sign for how good of shape our QB kept his arm, even while planning a wedding. The final play of the drive was ruled with Ben going down to the turf, but he fought the whole way down with two Skins draped around him: Midseason form for Ben, further proof our O-Line is still bad (this was a rough night for our offensive line, and they were quite obviously the weakest unit we put on the field, followed closely by our secondary).
The first drive by the Defense showed flashes of brilliance - particularly once the Redskins were in the Red Zone - as well as areas we need to work on before the season starts. The very first play was a blown assignment by William Gay (a theme of the night) that allowed a good gain for Sexy Rexy Grossman. The rest of the drive featured an injury to Ryan Clark (doesn't seem serious), Tim Hightower showing we may have problems with strong running backs if things don't change, two missed holding calls, some great penetration by our LB's, and some nice work by Ryan Mundy filling in for Troy.
I'm going to digress a bit for a moment those of you watching on TV might have missed while at commercial, and I think it was an important moment of the game. On our second offensive possession, Wallace was slammed to the ground by the sideline in a pretty blatant late hit that pushed Tomlin over the edge after two other no holding calls in the previous possession. When a timeout was taken, Tomlin chewed out three different refs for most of the break before finally calming down. We all know Tomlin to be diplomatic and he rarely loses it like he did during the timeout, but I was very happy he stood up for his team early, because this could be a long year if Steelers are being targeted by officials and Commissioner Goodell.
Now onto positional highlights:
Ben played just the one series, and while he wasn't on the same page as his receivers, getting out of this game with just a minor hand injury is nothing less than a miracle for our ever-injured Franchise Player. Leftwich had a pretty bad first series with an overthrow to Brown and a sack taken after holding the ball too long. His second series wasn't too eventful either, however he picked it up in his third and fourth possessions and looked the best in those two drives out of any of our backups. On our lone scoring drive, Leftwich had a great play go for 29 yards to Antonio Brown (though the throw was a little off) and another 11 yard pass to Brown to set up Redman's great touchdown, more on that later. Overall, Leftwich impressed me and is clearly the second option at this juncture.
Charlie Batch was Charlie Batch. Charlie managed the game, handed off the ball and didn't make and didn't make any mistakes. He didn't do anything to hurt himself, and with the performance Dixon put in, that was all he needed. Dennis Dixon is wearing on me. I understand he wants to be a starter, but the kid needs to prove something first. Only Philly can sell unproven Quarterbacks to desperate teams, and I honestly think Dixon would be a hard sell for Andy Reid to make. In his last drive Dixon showed some flashes with a nice run and good pass, but with many incomplete passes, bad field management, and his recent attitude and late arrival to Camp, I would much rather have the Steelers try to make a trade, or just cut the guy and go with Lefty and Batch. Dixon has a lot to prove in the next few games after going 1 for 10, and he has the most to lose.
Mendenahll barely played and didn't impress, so let's jump straight to the best player we had tonight: Isaac Redman. Redman scored our only touchdown and he approached every run with a hard style like it was 4th and goal from the 1-yard line while averaging over 8 yards per carry. We have all loved Isaac Redman here, but this game he looked like a young Jerome Bettis. He was quick, spun a few times to gain some yards, and ran very hard. If Mendehall is out of the game, I feel like we finally have a great compliment who can carry some of the load. Mewelde Moore looked average tonight. He had an easy drop mixed in with some decent runs, but mostly he was unimpressive. There is a spot open for the third running back on this team, and I am very sad Baron Batch will not be filling it, though this game highlighted someone who might. Jonathan Dwyer didn't look stellar, but he looked the best I have seen him in a Steelers uniform. Dwyer put in some hard runs and had good explosiveness and cutback ability, even behind a very bad offensive line. Dwyer also caught a pass, and if he improves throughout camp, he could make the active roster and possibly move past Moore. After Clay rushed for 3 yards, the Steelers didn't attempt another run (aside from Dixon) for the rest of the night. I would have liked to see more from Clay, but overall a weak night from anyone not named Isaac Redman.
Antonio Brown looked fantastic tonight. He was explosive, displayed great hands and got up after being dragged down pretty hard on a pass-interference call. Brown had 4 catches for 64 yards and placed the block on Redman's touchdown in the secondary that opened up the end zone. Wallace showed great speed, but wasn't on the same page as Ben (nothing to worry about), and Eric Greenwood's one catch for 29 yards was just about the only other highlight from our passing attack. A scary near injury happened Wes Lyons went up on his 6'8" frame and nearly pulled down a ball Shaq would have had trouble with, only to have the ball slip from his grip as he slammed into the ground. After a few minutes on the field, he jogged off a pretty good speed by himself, and I assume he just got the wind knocked out of him pretty hard and saw some stars. If Lyons can make those catches in the future, he would be well-worth a place on the Practice Squad while he develops.
The real loser of the WR competition was Arnaz Battle. Battle dropped two very easy catches and had another play where he ran into a fellow wide receiver, forcing Leftwich to sail a bail out of bounds. With the signing of Cotchery, I do not see a place for Battle on this team. If we keep a 6th wide receiver (on top of Ward, Wallace, Sanders, Brown, and Cotchery) it will likely be Sweed or Grisham for what they bring that our other wide-outs might not have. I don't expect Battle to last much longer in camp, and I hope he catches on somewhere else if he should happen to be cut.
This will be pretty short, because there wasn't much production out of our tight ends. Two key points for this position however, regard the play of David Johnson, and the limited use of Weslye Saunders. First, let me say that Johnson was awful today. He missed blocks (his biggest contribution to this team), and looked abysmal whenever he was called upon to run a route. This was not a good day for Johnson, and the Steelers need to start evaluating their younger guys some more if he can't get the job done. Second, I was surprised by the limited use of Saunders, and the method in which he was used. Saunders didn't get a chance to play until Dixon was in the game, and was almost exclusively reserved for blocking when he was playing. Blocking isn't Saunders' expertise, and I would have much rather seen him catching balls from Leftwich and seeing what he can add to the game should Heath need to miss any time. Disappointing day for tight ends.
This was just a travesty, and outside of the starters (who were not by any means spectacular) I was only impressed with one player: second round pick Marcus Gilbert. I was a huge critic of the Gilbert pick, and am still not sure he was the right guy to go with, but I can see what the FO saw. Gilbert dominated the men he went up against, and adjusted well to being passed a rusher by another lineman. He wasn't perfect, but he showed flashes of the potential he has, and I wouldn't object at all to him moving into a starting spot at some point this season.
This was one of the stronger units on the night, even though the Redskins put up 140 yards rushing on the night. Keisel, Hood, Hoke, and Hampton all looked very good and I am sure as the season gets closer, they will all play better. I was particularly interested in how Cam Heyward would play, and he looked like a future superstar at times. Heyward is definitely more interested/comfortable with filling gaps than rushing the passer, but he has a motor that will take him toward the passer if he breaks free. He looked very much like Keisel insomuch as he never really got to the QB, but rushed some throws that may have been capitalized on by our first string secondary. His best play of the night was a manhandling of a running back that ended with a great slamdown. Heyward shrugged off a blocker and showed great lateral movement to chase down the running back and grabbing his jersey. Once the jersey was in his hand, it looked like the RB had been lassoed in a cartoon, because he shot backwards and was thrown to the ground with great strength. One final player of note on the defensive line was Miguel Chavis, a rookie out of Clemson. There is little chance he makes the team because he frankly isn't fast enough, nor strong enough to play at this level, but I was impressed by what he was able to do. Maybe he will catch on with another team, or in another professional league, because he plays above his physical capabilities. Chavis (number 65, same as Gilbert so take that as an indication of his chance to make the team) had stiff hips and made some so-so plays, but he always seemed to be involved on the tackles while he was in the game, and opened up some spaces for Sylvester to have a good showing. Good luck to you Mr. Chavis, it was fun watching you tonight.
Woodley, Timmons and Farrior were the only starters to play, and they all had good and bad moments. Timmons missed a tackle he had no business whiffing on, and Woodley wasn't the excellent pass-rusher we expect him to be during the season, but they didn't let me down tonight. Larry Foote and Stevenson Sylvester had the best game from the LB position. Sylvester played a lot of the game, and was very good. There were a number of plays where both Foote and Sylvester penetrated the line and got into the quarterback's face. I was impressed by the speed of both (particularly Sylvester) and thought they both showed a lot of heart, which is good since they are competing for the primary backup spot at ILB. One area where I will critique Sylvester is in pass coverage. His hips are stiff, and he loses some of his speed when moving laterally following a receiver's route. The two other LB's I'll mention are Worilds and Chris Carter. Worilds showed flashes on a few rushes and was able to play pretty well with the first unit. He didn't do anything particularly special, but he held his own, and I believe he will develop into a great player given time. Carter on the other hand did not look very good on the few plays I focused on him. He was often out of place and still hasn't learned where he needs to be on any given play (something I know will come with more time) which often led to him missing plays he should have made. Carter didn't show much in pass rushing either, so overall he needs to study the playbook more and just show some improvement as the season progresses.
I am lumping them together because this was a pretty unimpressive unit tonight. Ryan Clark was injured and out early, and up until he got his bell rung, Ryan Mundy looked just good enough to challenge Clark for a starter role. I was very impressed by Mundy's coverage, hitting and understanding of his place in the defense. After he was injured delivering a brutal shot over the middle, he wasn't the same player, but he still was the brightest spot in our secondary tonight. Keenan Lewis had good and bad moments. He made some solid tackles, was in position to stop plays right after the WR made the catch, and helped out in run support; however, Lewis was also beaten a few times, particularly when he was playing off his man, and gave up some big plays because he couldn't stick with Santana Moss. I didn't see much from the younger guys who suited up tonight, though Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith looked like he should be earning himself a roster spot with some solid tackling and a knack for being involved in seemingly every play. Two players had very bad showings, one is young and I can forgive him, the other needs to be cut and we shouldn't look back. First, the young player, Donovan Warren, first caught my eye during warm-ups when it appeared as though he had learned how to catch a pass exclusively from the school of Ike Taylor. He spent the rest of the game looking slow, getting beaten, and basically showing up late to every play he should have been in on, waiting until after large chunks of yards were gained until he arrived. In other words, he looked like a young William Gay, who just so happens to be my pick for worst player of the game. Gay didn't make a single play that I could be excited about. He has not improved at all from last year, and clearly wasn't as upset as we all were about his play in the Super Bowl. It is time for the Steelers to cut ties with William Gay, and give the admittedly flawed Keenan Lewis a chance to play the Nickel.
Daniel Sepulveda was by far the better punter in this game. He looks like he has all of his leg strength back, and showed great placement of kicks both in the game, and in warm-ups. As much as I thank Kapinos for his help getting us to the Super Bowl last year, he showed a weak leg, little in the way of directional kicking (particularly in warm-ups where he landed one out of dozens of kicks outside of the end zone) and didn't stack up at all to Sepulveda.
The kickers were a little bit of a better match up. For starters, Suisham has the edge in this race because he is a) a proven vet who has made kicks at Hines Field in the winter; and b) more consistently accurate than his counterpart. The only chance Waters has at this point though, is to utilize his leg strength to a point that Tomlin feels comfortable overlooking his average accuracy. During warm-ups, Waters was kicking balls from 50 yards (often not very accurately) that were still rising when they hit the net behind the goalpost. The fact that the balls were still rising indicates he easily could have been making these kicks from 60+ yards. I was very impressed by his leg strength and in his one practice kickoff, he nearly put it into the stands on the fly. This kid has a monster leg, and if he can fix his accuracy issues will be a force as our kicker. Maybe next year.
One quick comment while we are talking about special teams. After watching the game live, this new 35-yard line kickoff rule is horrid. This rule has effectively taken away kick returns from the game. Unless a fluke play occurs (as it did in this one) where the team gets down to on coverage so fast and the receiver is crazy enough to run even though he is 8 yards into the end zone, then due to this over-pursuit and the kicking team assuming a touchback the receiver returns to the 50-yard line, there is no more use for kick return specialists. I think it is sad that this part of the game has been effectively removed. Bad rule NFL, I hope you change back in the near future.
Overall, I think the Steelers played like a team still catching up after a long lockout. The team will look sharper as the preseason progresses, and the starters will get more time to work together. Redskins fans were thrilled they won this game tonight, but we all know this is no indication of how this season will go. I saw some good and some bad tonight, but overall we are watching a star being born (Isaac Redman), and hopefully the fall of a long-frenemy William Gay. I will leave you with my thanks to everyone who brought football back this year, because there is nothing like putting on your Steelers jersey and rooting for the Black and Gold. Go Steelers!