Bruce Gradkowski homecoming shows Steelers are stable with their primary back-up

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

No slight intended towards the venerable Charlie Batch whose courage, sagacity and pure heart-of-a-champion will long be remembered, but with Gradkowski the future is now at the backup QB position.

Bruce Gradkowski, a Pittsburgh native now with his sixth team in his seven years in the NFL had a more than decent showing in the Steelers' first preseason game against the New York Giants. Taking over for Ben Roethlisberger on the Steelers' third possession in the first quarter, Gradkowski played through the end of the second quarter and compiled stats typical to an early pre-season game: 6 for 11 passing (54.5 percent) for 35 yards (5.8 yards per completion, 3.2 yards per attempt), no touchdowns, no interceptions.

Not stellar stats for sure, but more importantly Gradkowski showed the same tenacity and competitiveness he demonstrated when he played for the Oakland Raiders in 2009 and threw for three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to lead the Raiders in a come-from-behind victory at Heinz Field.

Gradkowski showed good pocket presence, and a willingness to stand firm in the face of an oncoming defender while preparing to throw. At the same time, he brings to the Steelers the ability to bootleg himself out of trouble when the pocket collapses. He was more than a bit daring with a couple of his passes, trying to force them into coverage to rookie receivers like Markus Wheaton and Justin Brown, but let's remember this is his first pre-season game, with a new team and a new offensive scheme as well.

Running back Jonathan Dwyer didn't do Gradkowski (nor himself) any favors by dropping a couple of passes, but the combination of Gradkowski to Wheaton on the first play of the second quarter electrified the crowd at Heinz Field.

Wheaton made a leaping catch of a 21 yard pass along the sidelines and deftly did the requisite "toe tap" with his left foot as he fell out of bounds, proving that this rookie receiver did not find his first NFL game experience too big for him. Unfortunately he couldn't retain control of the ball after hitting the ground out of bounds and the pass was properly ruled incomplete after being challenged by the Giants.

Last night Gradkowski proved he can provide the peace-of-mind Steeler Nation has long been without in terms of being a viable multi-game backup for the oft injured Roethlisberger. And frankly, with Gradkowski also being a native of Pittsburgh like Homestead Charlie (he grew up in Dormont), he is an emotionally fitting replacement as well; he may never attain the cult-hero status Mr. Batch achieved, but for the next several years Steeler Nation can do more than hold its breath with blind faith and crossed fingers if, or rather when, the Steelers second string QB takes the field.

Unfortunately, whatever peace of mind Gradkowski bestows on Steeler Nation, the Special Teams continues to take away. Once again penalties and ill-considered decisions like Justin Brown's illegal block above the waist while second year WR David Gilreath foolishly fielded the ball at the Steelers' seven yard line instead of allowing it to bounce into the end zone pushed the Steelers precariously close to their own goal line; a botched handoff by rookie QB Landry Jones to Baron Batch quickly resulted in a safety for the Giants.

Lest you attribute the Special Teams' continuing tribulations to nervous rookies, at the end of the very first series in the first quarter third year player Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith looked like a drunken hop-frog, bouncing twice to his right and allowing a Giants defender to cut inside with nary a touch to reach Drew Butler and block the punt, although why a roughing the kicker penalty wasn't called on the Giants is puzzling. Cromartie-Smith, having totally missed his assigned man, inexplicably fell to the ground and crashed into fellow defender Chris Carter.

The Keystone Cops pratfalls of the Steelers' special teams from last season continued throughout the night; Gilreath had an especially bad night; in addition to the poor decision mentioned above, two Steelers' possessions later he attempted to field a punt with his shoulder pads resulting in the Giants recovering a fumble on the Steelers' 30 yard line.

Much has been made of the Steelers' rejuvenation and re-tooling this off season; while the backup quarterback situation appears to have been successfully re-tooled, if anyone believes special teams' discipline and execution has been rejuvenated by Head Coach Mike Tomlin, then last night should prove otherwise.

No improvement was visible with this unit's performance; neither resulting from Tomlin's hiring of new Special Teams coach Danny Smith (who he has stated he has pursued since 2010) nor through any change in discipline that Tomlin supposedly has implemented in this year's training camp. While conceding that this was just the first pre-season game, there was little evidence last night to suggest that the Steelers' Special Teams unit is undergoing anything but a long and nightmarish transition.

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