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Steelers’ backups stumble as the Packers bounce them out of Lambeau

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As promising as the first preseason game in Philly was for some of the Steelers’ depth players, that’s how disappointing their 51-34 thrashing was Thursday night in Green Bay.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Green Bay Packers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Interviewed on the field by Missi Matthews of the Steelers’ official website right before the start of the second half, Head Coach Mike Tomlin said he was disappointed in the tentative, first-half performance by his team. Tomlin ascribed the poor showing of his backup players to the fact that they seemed too concerned about making mistakes, instead of simply cutting loose and playing with confidence. But whatever the reason, only a few Steelers were standouts in the House of Cheese, while many more woke up Friday morning smelling like Limburger.

Offense

Perhaps the biggest disappointment, at least in terms of the pre-game expectations, was the play of quarterback Mason Rudolph. On the first offensive play of the game, Rudolph telegraphed a short pass intended for a closely covered Darrius Heyward-Bey and threw a room-service pick-6, putting his team immediately in the hole. While Rudolph promptly made amends, bouncing back with a couple of scoring drives in the first quarter, he was ineffective throughout the second quarter, either throwing off-target to his receivers or taking sacks (three for minus 20 yards) by holding onto the ball too long in the pocket. While Rudolph did throw a pretty TD pass to JuJu Smith Schuster, his overall effort was indicative of a rookie QB still having a lot to learn. While not exactly disastrous, Rudolph’s 47 passing yards and 3.9-yard average certainly wasn’t the kind of effort that would cause even Landry Jones to lose any sleep.

Undoubtedly, the star of this otherwise forgettable game for the Black-and-gold was rookie receiver James Washington (five receptions for 114 yards) who snatched two TD passes out of defenders’ clutches and beat his man deep for another 54-yard reception. Based on what we’ve seen from Washington so far, it seems unlikely that anyone is going to stop this kid from claiming a starting role and making Steelers Nation forget all about Martavis Bryant. It’s exciting to ponder the possibilities when Ben Roethliberger is targeting No. 13 during the regular season.

Joshua Dobbs also threw a pick-6, lobbing a pass to a well-covered Damoun Patterson on a short out-route in the third quarter. But as the game wore on during the second half, Dobbs wound up turning in a considerably better overall performance than Rudolph — completing 12 of 18 passes for 192 yards. The offensive line play also was a bright spot, regardless of who was manning the line positions during the game. For the most part, Rudolph and Dobbs had adequate time to throw the ball throughout the game.

Running back James Conner was impressive again, rambling for 57 yards on only five carries, including a 26-yd TD jaunt. Given the prowess of the Steelers’ offensive line, Conner appears to be the kind of back who can fill in capably for Le’Veon Bell when needed, and also be in a position to assume the No. 1 RB duties in the likely event that Bell takes his talents elsewhere in 2019.

Defense

The rash of missed tackles which has plagued the Steelers for some time continued unabated in Green Bay. With the exception of Vince Williams and a sack by Bud Dupree, the Steelers’ linebacker play was mediocre at best. In particular, the play of Anthony Chickillo and Jon Bostic left much to be desired and raises legitimate questions about their ability to succeed when facing top-flight competition during the regular season. Bostic seemed especially suspect in pass coverage, while Chickillo totally whiffed on a tackle in punt coverage and was mediocre in run support.

Equally troubling was the secondary play, with Packers’ Wide Receiver Jake Kumerow (three catches for 114 yards and one 82-yard TD) gashing the Steelers’ defensive backfield for big plays. But perhaps most worrisome of all was the uneven play of first-round draft pick Terrell Edmunds. While Edmunds made a nice special-teams play, forcing a fumble and then recovering it on a Steelers’ kickoff — and also defended an Aaron Rodgers pass into the end zone in the first quarter — he also was beaten twice by tight ends for TDs. The first TD was on a first-quarter pass from Rodgers to Packers’ Tight End Jimmy Graham. In the second quarter, Edmunds was beaten again on another TD pass from Hundley to Tight End Robert Tonyan.

The most troubling aspect of these plays was that Edmunds appears not to possess the physical size necessary to defend the huge, talented tight ends, of which there are quite a few in the NFL today. Granted it’s still early but, until he proves otherwise, it seems Edmunds is going to have lots of trouble being boxed-out or simply out-jumped by those larger bodies (Graham is 6’7” and Tonyan is 6’5”) on throws to the end zone. He also missed an open-field tackle late in the first quarter which resulted in a big play for the Packers.

The Steelers’ pass rush was unable to generate much pressure throughout the game and, in the second quarter, Packers’ backup QB Brett Hundley was able to escape the pocket and run the ball in for a TD, despite being surrounded by a host of onrushing Steelers’ defenders.

Odds and ends

  • The Steelers gave up a 41-yard punt return to the Packers’ Josh Jackson.
  • Safety Nat Berhe failed to contain Kumerow on his 82-yard catch and run for a TD.
  • Cam Sutton continues to look like he might develop into a starter one of these days.
  • Jordan Berry continues to be inconsistent, and that’s a real problem with your punter.

All in all, not much to write home about on the visit to Cheese Land. While there’s not much reason to worry about the offense come Opening Day, the defense is another story entirely. It still seems there are too many unfilled holes in this defense as we move ever-closer to the start of the 2018 regular season. And with the exception of a few players, nobody wearing black-and-gold seemed to make any real strides during this outing. But a number of them likely have made the Turk’s unpleasant job much easier.