1. James Conner
I love how Conner is being groomed to take over Le’Veon Bell’s role. He actually did a pretty good impression of Bell in the empty-set passing game. Conner looked very natural catching the ball. On the opening series, they motioned him out wide and then brought him on an underneath route where he caught the ball with his hands and made ten yards after the catch running into the teeth of the Tennessee defense.
That’s a nice scheme by Randy Fichtner. Better to have a 220-pound RB catching the ball in that area and lowering his shoulders into linebackers than someone like Antonio Brown. Later on the same drive, they called a screen to Conner, who snatched the ball out of the air effortlessly with one hand. The Steelers opened their second drive by hitting Conner in the flat on a slant-flat combo vs cover-3, and Conner ran through the tackle of the closing cornerback for a first down.
That drive resulted in a touchdown.
Conner finished with six catches for 52-yards. He also flattened a Tennessee OLB who was speed-rushing the edge with a vicious chip in pass protection.
Jaylen Samuels picked up where Conner left off in the second half, demonstrating the versatility he displayed at NC State. Samuels made a great backside zone cut on his first carry to gain 18-yards. On the next play, he caught a flat route and turned it upfield for a nice gain. Later, he squared his shoulders and ran hard inside for a first down on 3rd-and-1. He accounted for three first downs on the Steelers’ first drive of the second half and had a beautiful touchdown run where he showed elusiveness in the open field wiped out by a holding penalty. Overall, he rushed for 41-yards and caught four balls.
I’m not saying Conner or Samuels are Le’Veon Bell yet — they might never be. But Conner is a more confident and complete back than he was last season, and Samuels looked every bit the Swiss Army knife he’s been hyped to be. Most significantly, they both looked awfully good in the receiver role that Bell believes makes him so unique.
2. ‘Big’ Ben Roethlisberger
No. 7’s short stint was productive — three drives, seven points, no punishment taken, no 3-and-outs. Big Ben looked decisive in the short passing game but, other than a dime he dropped to Justin Hunter for the Steelers first TD, he was a little “off” with his deeper ball placement. No worries there, though. I’d rather see the short passing game flourish early in the season. This offense has lots of new pieces and may take some time to round into shape. Playing ball-control until it does might not be a bad thing. The ball was out of Ben’s hand in a hurry and he knew exactly where to go with it.
Watching Roethlisberger move through his progressions is a thing of beauty. He reads a defense so quickly and he knows exactly where his counter moves are if the first option is no good. The accuracy will improve with reps (and having a certain No. 84 on the field won’t hurt, either). After a couple of games with the backup QBs in charge, it was a pleasure to watch the master shake off some of his rust.
3. For the Defense
On the other side of the ball, it sure felt like a message had been delivered to that unit after their embarrassment in Green Bay. I wouldn’t call their performance dominant, but it sure was an upgrade over what we saw last week.
Jon Bostic looked good at LB. He made a heck of a play on Tennessee’s first possession, knifing through a reach block to tackle Derrick Henry for a short gain on a zone play away from him. After a second quarter Landry Jones interception, Bostic exploded through a Tennessee guard to make a tackle for loss on first down. He plays with great leverage and uses his hands extremely well, while also possessing a knack for finding seams to the ball. He’s a really solid run defender and also made a nice open-field tackle on a 3rd-and-long play where he dropped under a deep “in” route, then rallied down to tackle the checkdown throw short of the sticks. His pass-defense has been questioned this summer but when he keeps the play in front of him he’s effective.
Stephon Tuitt showed up early, recording a sack on Tennessee’s opening drive where he absolutely blew through Henry, who showed zero interest in blocking him. Tuitt played with a low pad level all night, won the battle of the hands with the OL and would not be moved off the line of scrimmage in the run game. Ditto for Cam Heyward, who recorded a sack and a TFL of his own. The two played like men among boys at times.
Terrell Edmunds stood out as well. He always seemed to be around the ball, and his return of an interception in the second quarter showed flashes of real play-making ability with the ball in his hands. Edmunds laid out to undercut a Marcus Mariota throw, jumped to his feet and took off like a rocket up the field. He hit a seam and accelerated like a speed back. My immediate thought was, “Good Lord, get this kid on the kick return team.” For a franchise forever in search of a return man, the No. 1 pick sure looked like he fit the bill.
The better news was how active he was on the back end. He seemed to be barking out signals, demonstrating the communication skills Mike Tomlin raved about early in camp. When Edmunds rolled down into the slot, he pursued the ball relentlessly and would not be blocked by smaller slot receivers. It was the most impressive performance of the preseason by the young safety.
On the down side defensively, Bud Dupree remains a lazy pass-rusher. His hands are so inactive. I never see him work to get the OL’s hands off of him. Last night, as so often before, he used the same speed rush up field, with the occasional counter-club across the tackle’s face that usually resulted in him getting pinned inside. Twice he came inside to the B-gap on stunts. Neither time did he “dip and rip” as backers are taught to do in those situations (translation: get small and skinny and throw an uppercut to “rip” through the hands of the blocker); rather, he simply ran full-steam into the line, where he was easily thwarted by the OL. He did hurry Mariota on the play where Edmunds made the interception, but Tennessee blew the blocking assignment, so it’s hard to give Dupree much credit there.
The irony on Dupree is he’s gotten better at using his hands at the point of attack in the run game. He was more effective holding the edge on outside runs last night, which was largely a product of getting his hands into the chest of the tight end and using his strength to hold his ground. Where is that technique work and attention to detail as a pass rusher? Dupree is a gifted, explosive athlete. He makes the occasional play because of that natural ability. If he was half the technician T.J. Watt is, and if he ever learned the art of hand play that the great pass-rushers master, he might be special.
4. Villaneuva watch
I’m beginning to perceive Alejandro Villanueva as the weak link of the O-line. It’s hard for a 6-feet 8-inch dude to play low, but he’s constantly too high and rarely squares up on defenders in the run game. His elbows are outside his body a lot and he gives up his chest, which compromises his ability to drive block. Plus, he’s in that damned 2-point stance all the time, which creates leverage issues at the snap (as well as the occasional false step backwards, slowing his ability to get his hands on the defender). All of this was on display last night, as AV struggled to get a push on runs to his side and failed to cut defenders off on runs away from him.
AV is better in pass protection because his length creates a difficult target for defenders to avoid. He can be bull-rushed by smaller defenders who play with leverage, but this is clearly the stronger aspect of his game right now. That’s good, considering he protects the blind side of the franchise QB. To run the ball effectively, however, we will need AV to improve. The two-point stance might be a product of how hard it is to uncoil his 6’8 frame with force when he puts his hand on the ground. But if he’s going to remain in the two-point, he’s going to have to work very hard to get off the ball lower in order to become a better run blocker. I wouldn’t say I’m worried about AV — I just think he needs a ton of work on his fundamentals.
All told, this looked a lot more like the 13-3 squad fans watched last season than the disinterested group of imposters who took the field last week in Green Bay. Next week will be all about the backups and fringe players. Tonight, though, we saw some encouraging things from the varsity squad, so don’t tear that Terrible Towel to pieces just yet!