I don’t want to make any egregious overstatements or knee-jerk reactions, but after just one preseason game, I am confident that T.J. Watt and Arthur Moats are the greatest pass rushing duo in NFL history.
Watt and Moats, who almost assuredly will assume pretty significant roles this season, inexplicably played four quarters of preseason football in a 20-12 win over the Giants. This dynamic duo, henceforth known solely as the gruesome twosome, combined for five sacks, six quarterback hits, 11 tackles, and two defensed passes, making Friday’s predictable snoozefest somewhat palatable. More importantly, though, Watt and Moats demonstrated that the Steelers have an encouraging amount of linebacker depth behind Bud Dupree and James Harrison.
We’ll begin with a perfunctory breakdown of Watt’s inaugural contest. Watt, who at times during training camp looked totally overmatched by Alejandro Villanueva, routinely bypassed Giants blockers and found his way into the backfield, where he picked up a pair of sacks (the easiest sacks of his career, Mike Tomlin quipped as the Steelers headed into the locker room at halftime), swatted a pass (as is customary for a Watt brother) and broke up several running plays. He needs to add some actual pass rushing moves to his arsenal, but one can presume that this will develop over time. Perhaps Watt’s most laudable contribution occurred on a play in which the Giants gained nine yards. In the second quarter, Josh Johnson, who started at quarterback for the Giants in place of Eli Manning, escaped a collapsing pocket, brushed off two or three Pittsburgh defenders, and began heading upfield. Watt, despite being on the opposite side of the field, pursued Johnson anyway, making a tackle just short of the first-down marker.
I’m not a huge fan of meaningless qualifiers (“hustler,” “locker room guy,” “deceptive speed,” etc.), but Watt demonstrated an appreciable degree of relentlessness on the aforementioned play. His career is definitely off to a good start.
Moats, meanwhile, looked like he was playing against high schoolers and smiled the entire time he did it. The best play of the night occurred when Moats pushed left tackle Chad Wheeler literally into Geno Smith, reached around Wheeler to grab Smith’s jersey, and dragged Smith to the ground despite having 310 pounds of sweaty man meat lodged between him and his target. He is literally impossible not to root for. It’s irresponsible to place too much emphasis on preseason statistics, but a three-sack game (Moats also had an interception) in any environment is an accomplishment worthy of praise.
With Watt, Moats, Harrison, and Dupree, Pittsburgh’s pass rush would seem to be in great shape. Let’s check in with some other notable performers:
The quarterbacks - Stock (slightly) up
We’ll preface this immediately by pointing out that Josh Dobbs bounced back after throwing two of the ugliest interceptions you will ever see. He finished Friday’s game with eight completions on 15 attempts for 100 yards and a beautifully-thrown touchdown to Cobi Hamilton, which is about as good as you can ask for from a rookie quarterback playing in his first career game. But man, those interceptions. Permit me to recap.
Dobbs, presumably interested in throwing the football to Darrius Heyward-Bey, decided that he could achieve this goal by floating an absolute Peyton Manning duck approximately 10 yards away from Heyward-Bey, which allowed the artist formerly known as Antwon Blake to make the easiest interception of his life. This throw, obviously, was attributed to Dobbs’ “nerves” and a “miscommunication between quarterback and receiver.” There is veracity to both of these statements. Still, it was a terrible throw.
The second interception was the result of pure, unadulterated panic. Dobbs, understandably rattled by both his first interception and the speed of the professional game, kind of just lobbed the ball in the direction of Fitzgerald Toussaint after briefly escaping a semi-collapsing pocket, allowing Devin Taylor to also make the easiest interception of his life.
Dobbs settled down a while later, throwing a 29-yard dart to Hamilton as well as a ridiculously on-target touchdown to Xavier Grimble (which was mitigated by a penalty, but still awesome). Dobbs’ performance was wholly uneven, but at least he finished strong. We’ll point his arrow up.
Bart Houston, on the other hand, threw exactly one good pass, which Canaan Severin dropped. The remainder of his throws, the majority of which landed five or 10 yards beyond their preferred landing points, served as compelling affirmation that Pittsburgh’s quarterback depth chart is set in stone. Because Mike Tomlin now has one fewer decision to make, the entire position gets a gold star.
Receivers not named Cobi Hamilton - Stock down
Granted, the receivers were kind of at the mercy of subpar quarterback play (Marcus Tucker, for example, probably would have scored two long touchdowns if Houston didn’t throw the ball like a somehow less accurate version of Jay Cutler), but no player really stood out. Juju Smith-Schuster sustained a concussion when he got a little too rambunctious trying to make a tackle following Dobbs’ first interception, depriving us of seeing him in extended action (and maybe for a while longer). Severin dropped two passes. No receiver other than Severin and Hamilton caught more than one pass. This incredibly crowded group will seek to make a better impression next time.
Camp darlings - Stock up
Mike Hilton, a legitimate threat to make the final 53-man roster, collected a sack and a fumble recovery and led the team in tackles. The slot cornerback position is pretty log-jammed, but William Gay is 113 years old, Cameron Sutton is a rookie, and Senquez Golson recently got injured in a pillow fight. Coaches will always make room for a capable defensive back, regardless of the current organizational structure.
Hamilton, as per usual, was just visible enough to make his inevitable departure from the Steelers sting that much more, while L.J. Fort continues to prove that he was an excellent find back in 2015.
Running backs - Stock down
While Le’Veon Bell has managed to pioneer and perfect a frustratingly-patient, yet undeniably gorgeous running style, the remaining members of Pittsburgh’s backfield approach the line of scrimmage with virtually no tact or delicacy. Instead, Knile Davis and Fitzgerald Toussaint exhibit similar running styles that are strangely linear. To explain, the average Davis handoff involves him grabbing the ball and barreling directly toward the line of scrimmage. If a hole is present, awesome, he will hit it and pick up a few yards. If no such hole is evident, Davis will do one of two things. Usually, he will change directions and run in an almost perpendicular pattern to the sideline. Sometimes, though, he just stays in the lane and falls forward for two or three yards. Either way, it’s almost as if he can’t wait for the play to be over. With a career average of 3.2 yards per carry, it’s hard to envision his career trajectory enjoying any drastic alterations. The same is largely true for Toussaint, too. Thank goodness they can both play special teams.
Needless to say, Bell is going to get like 450 touches this season. It’s gonna be ridiculous.
Some observational vignettes that intrigued me but don’t deserve an entire graf:
Jerald Hawkins, stock down: Grading offensive line play is not among my preferred forays, but I saw Hawkins get dusted on at least two plays, leaving wide open paths to Dobbs. It is a miracle that Dobbs did not explode into a cloud of red mist.
Tyson Alulau’s forearms, stock up: No description needed.
Javon Hargrave, stock up: Watt and Moats played well, but they were major beneficiaries of Hargrave occupying numerous blockers on a multitude of plays. This dude has Pro Bowls in his future.
Charlie Batch, stock down: Batch attempted to justify his opinion that Le’Veon Bell should report to training camp by making the following argument: “yeah, [Bell] is worried about injuries, but as we’ve seen across the league this season, injuries are just part of football!” Not since MIMS smash hit “This is Why I’m Hot” has circular logic been so ineffectual. Batch later stated that Bell should report to camp to serve as an example and “teach guys how not to fumble the ball.” Now, I’m no professional coach, but I would assume “teaching guys not to fumble” begins and ends with “grip the ball tighter or we will literally cut you from the team.” Everyone is entitled to their opinion, Charlie, but it may be prudent to localize your more divisive ones to internet blogs like the rest of us.