Weekend Checkdown: the top stories of the week

Rob Carr

Is the Steelers 2013 season over after the second preseason game?

If you don't get the joke (and I bet some didn't) then it may be a long and painful season for some of us. There were some eggs laid on Monday night in Washington. Predictably, there has been hand wringing and back sliding and all form and variety of angst ever since. The various manifestations of these issues would have been our top stories this week, but then this morning there was a legitimate surprise.

Adrian Robinson traded to the Eagles for Felix Jones

This is unusual on so many levels. People on this site are suggesting trades on a fairly regular basis, but compared to the other major sports, trades in professional football are somewhat rare. Trades involving the Steelers are rarer still. So its fair to say that this at least appeared to come out of left field. Robinson who was being touted by many of us as a free agent darling in the making has been sent to the Philadelphia Eagles for Jones whose NFL career began in promising fashion with the Dallas Cowboys, but has since fallen on hard times due to injuries. And I can hear some of you now; all we need is yet one more injury prone player.

As the media, fans and our intrepid staff at BTSC have been scrambling to decipher the meaning of all this, let me add my two cents as to what the move may mean.

1. There has been a misreading of the quality and quantity of talent at the linebacker position. One of the surprises that came out of the analysis of the first preseason game against the Giants was the level of play coming from positions that were thought to be dangerously thin in terms of depth. Instead..

By the end of Saturday evening the question seemed to be who among a promising group of prospects will come up short and be without a helmet when all is said and done.

So the fact that the team attempted to get something of value for one of these prospects instead of having them be picked off the street like a discarded sofa shows a certain amount of wisdom. And, as Bob Labriola pointed out, they traded in an area where they had a surplus and got help where they have a deficit. A few days ago that might have been tight end, but with the return of David Johnson

No one knows when Miller and David Johnson (aren't you glad they kept him around) will be ready to go, but the indications are that one or both should be available during the 2013 season.

and (knock on wood, fingers crossed) with results of a couple days of practice being positive, the crisis at that position has abated some; enough at least to believe that they may get adequate play between the blocking ability of Johnson and the pass catching of David Paulson until Miller returns. The problems with helping the offensive line will be addressed further on. That leaves running back where the injury bug, having moved on from ravaging the defensive secondary, has seemed to settled. So there is clearly some logic and a benefit to the move, but it was also surprising because..

2. It was Adrian Robinson. The talk through much of the spring was similar to that of last year when the subject of speculation was Cortez Allen. Free agents and lower round draft picks like James Harrison, Willie Parker and Steve McLendon rise up often enough through the Steelers system that they have become an expectation for fans. He had been talked up by Dick LeBeau which is sort of a seal of approval in these matters, so it had become almost a thing not so much of 'if', but rather 'when' for Robinson.

There has been talk that Robinson has taken a step backwards and fallen out of favor with the coaches. Possible. But just as valid is that with talk of a Woodley, Worilds, Jones rotation at the top, and a cheaper Alan Baxter and position flexible Stephenson Sylvester behind, only a disaster would have Robinson see the field. This could be a great deal for Robinson who went to college at Temple and is from that area, plus has a much better chance of actually playing. And as others have pointed out, Jones is cheaper than either Redman or Dwyer and at worse provides a backstop of sorts until Le'Veon Bell gets back on line.

And the whole business gave me something a bit more newsworthy to start the Checkdown with than..

Is it time to push the panic button?

Sadly, to be put in the position to entertain such a question is utterly predictable. And to allow oneself to become overly annoyed by this has become just as absurd in its own way as well. Let me make a couple of observations.

First there is the obligatory statement that, indeed, there is some cause for concern. If the playoffs, the Super Bowl, or the regular season were being played today then we'd be in deep crap. But of course this is precisely the point, its August. Its significant to me that the game was played in Washington, a place I am familiar with, that constantly endeavors to win the Super Bowl in August, ignoring the inconvenient fact that the game isn't played until February. This may be a factor in the fact that the Skins haven't been to a Super Bowl since the last time the Pirates were in the playoffs.

Next we are bombarded with the frivolous and inappropriate use of statistics; 'When X team goes such and such in the preseason then they are/aren't likely to go to the Super Bowl'. This is in the same category as the national sports programs that proclaim that an 0-1 team is in a must win situation during the second week of the regular season because statistics say that few 0-2 teams win world championships. It is a peculiar form of Attention Deficit Syndrome that allows this pattern to be repeated in Groundhog Day fashion, year in and year out with some people never getting wise.

There is no point in taking this further since others make the case effectively. Simonsen in a Fan Post that got bumped to the front page makes the case against panic. Ike Taylor also made an argument for patience. But I recommend you check this Steelers Live segment. Usually Missy Matthews and Bob Labriola talk about the day's events with the team in practice. In this case there are joined by Mike Tomlin. When Labriola asks Tomlin if he could say anything about the team's progress in fixing its issues that would "comfort" the fan base, Tomlin's response was both predictable and, at least to me, hilarious.

And on the positive side, this fits in with the under the radar scenario to the Super Bowl. Let's keep lulling the world to sleep.

Help for the offensive line?

Much of the criticism and concern from the Monday night game focus upon the performance of the offensive line. I must say that they demonstrated a genius for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory at just the right moments. And it was very much a group effort. Now, having said that, we should remember the following. This group is not just really young, but rather inexperienced as well. Adams and DeCastro in particular are only second year players in name only. Neither got as much as half a year's experience last season. Gilbert doesn't have as much mileage on the odometer as the length of his tenure would suggest either. Remember also that the offensive line is ensemble work, and there is the matter of the installation of a new system. And, yes I know, September is coming and waits for no man. But it may be unrealistic to not expect some growing pains with this group.

There is another issue here as well. There is a segment of the fan base that is absolutely obsessed with the offensive line, and a segment of them who keep harping on the idea that the team needs to continue to invest heavily in this group through the draft and also free agency and trades. Well, there's bad news for these folks; no help is coming because basically, there's none to be had. Last week I pointed out that Steeler Nation had taken a somewhat myopic view toward injuries, not understanding that is a problem league wide, and therefore not necessarily something that could be faulted to any deficiencies that could be attributed to the training or conditioning practices of the organization. This week we discover that perhaps the reason we are so thin at offensive line is because everyone is thin at offensive line.

The idea that fixing our offensive line problems is just a matter of picking up some the talent that is languishing on the street or down the depth charts of other teams may be a fiction. Salvation may require the patience to develop the talent on hand rather than looking elsewhere. Two illustrations. Steel34D performed another of his film dissections and concluded that, contrary to popular opinion, Marcus Gilbert is playing pretty well these days. Kelvin Beachum continues to accumulate quiet praise for the work that he is putting in as his development continues apace. Those of us who don't have the attention deficit disorder should find this rather remarkable given the fact that a year ago Steeler fans were tearing out their hair out because the team wouldn't toss Beachum out the door being that he was so 'obviously' terrible. Gilbert clearly is a victim of Gay/Colon disease where fans assume the worst and that's all they see. Beachum is a cautionary tale of drawing conclusions too quickly. In any case the solution favored by some may simply not be available.

The rookie class

The good news continues with Pittsburgh's first year players. Le'Veon Bell grabbed much of the spotlight during training camp, so it was disappointing that injury once again suppressed an opportunity to fully display his talents. While, relatively speaking, the news concerning his mid foot sprain was encouraging, he nonetheless is likely to be shelved until the regular season commences.

Jarvis Jone's star continues to rise. There was another turnover associated with his play this week. This time it was his actions that caused the miscue. I acknowledge to having been skeptical concerning the possibility of him contributing much in his first season. It happens so rarely in the Dick LeBeau system. But he appears to be steadily living up to the hype, and is clearly gaining the confidence of his teammates and coaches.

Shamarko Thomas received close to the lion's share of attention during spring drills but had fallen under the radar a bit in training camp. He has moved front and center again as his play against the Redskins earned him the Steelers Digest Player of the Week award.

And Markus Wheaton continues to impress as his veteran teammates continue to complement him on his maturity and complete skill set. He impressed a national television audience by demonstrating his separation abilities on a deep throw by Landry Jones.

Sophomores

It was not quite as good a week for the second year players. Offensive linemen David DeCastro and Mike Adams committed penalties that crippled promising offensive drives. Tight end David Paulson found himself overmatched again and again in attempting to execute his blocks against Redskin defenders. And with camps around the league ending Chris Rainey still is unemployed.

Wide Receivers

You would think with all the hype related to the loss of Mike Wallace as well as the bad news that Plaxico Burress would be lost for the season due to injury that the situation at receiver would seem to be precarious at best.

This aspect of the team continues to impress despite evidence that would suggest that the quality at this position would drop. Receivers coach Richard Mann is beginning to attract positive attention for his steadying influence and attention to detail in preparing his room. Antonio Brown is filling the leadership void created when Hines Ward retired. Emmanuel Sanders received praise for some quality catches during the game on Monday. Wheaton appears on track to be a top receiver more quickly than most imagined and is compared favorably against the man he is thought to replace (Wallace). Two young receivers with Penn State ties; Derek Moye and Justin Brown are both making persuasive cases for making this roster.

David Johnson

It was generally assumed that based upon their struggles during the last game that the Steelers would be compelled to go out and get help at the tight end position. The help came from the inside in the person of Johnson who came off the PUP list and resumed practice with no reported difficulties. In spite of the fact that he is held in low regard by some fans (that Gay/Colon disease again) Johnson has been a steady performer over the years and was a particularly effective blocker. An impressive preseason last year was spoiled by the knee injury that short circuited his season.

Ben

It is becoming apparent that the combination of the Steelers youth movement and transition in the team's quarterback room where elder statesmen Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich are no longer present has thrust Roethlisberger into a more front and center posture than in year's past. The result is a player that appears to be more consistently engaged with the team as he moves into the heart of his prime years. Ben was also the subject of remarks made by Charlie Batch who stated that Roethlisbergers ability to call audibles was restricted within the offense last year.

Momentum

Perhaps one of the underlying reasons behind the concerns of some for the Steelers' season so early in the process is the belief in the power of momentum, the perceived need to build positive inertia, or avoid the possibility of negative inertia. Bill Barnwell explores whether the data supports the notion of momentum and how it plays out in certain situations.

Overrated players

Two players with Steelers ties were named to a listing of overrated offensive players generated by Sports Illustrated. That Mike Wallace was on the list should not come as that great a surprise. The fact that Maurkice Pouncey made the list is another matter.

Kansas City

It hasn't happened yet as I write this, but you don't have to be a seer to know that what happens in that preseason game will likely dominate the Checkdown this time next week.

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