The Steelers defeated the Titans 16-6 on Saturday, with the first-team defense holding Tennessee’s starters scoreless, thereby temporarily placating any concerns that resulted from the total beatdown the Packers laid on them last week. Same as we do every week, let’s grab a few of the most interesting storylines and unpack them:
Stock up: The starting defense
Here’s an interesting factoid from Teresa Varley’s post-game write-up:
“The Titans didn’t get the ball past the 50-yard line through their first eight possessions and managed only four first downs against the starters.”
While the Titans aren’t as stunningly volcanic as, say, New Orleans or New England, it’s worth noting that the 2017 iteration of this outfit was efficient and methodical, which was largely attributable to Marcus Mariota’s multidimensional capabilities and their powerful rushing attack. But to prevent a functional professional football team — especially one that won a playoff game the year prior — from crossing midfield for eight possessions is remarkable. Impressive too is that Pittsburgh’s first-team unit amassed three sacks — one each by Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Vince Williams, who signed a $20 million contact extension last week — plus a whole handful of quarterback pressures, one of which forced Mariota to throw an ugly cross-body pass upfield that landed in the outstretched arms of Terrell Edmunds.
It’s the preseason, of course, but at the very least, the first-team defense looked the part of a unit that won’t be a complete liability in the late stages of important games. I’ll also point out that they were without the services of T.J. Watt, Mike Hilton, and Morgan Burnett, each of whom figures to assume a prominent role upon his healthy return, so the conceivably could be even more dominant against Tennessee. The next time we see the starting defense take the field together — ideally with Watt, Hilton, and Burnett — will likely be in the opener against Cleveland.
Stock up: Defensive role players
Let’s give due credit to a few individuals who played particularly well against Tennessee:
Terrell Edmunds: Not only did Edmunds exhibit the situational awareness to whip his head around just in time to track Mariota’s errant throw and the athleticism to make a nifty diving catch, but he also did a very convincing impression of a capable return man by jetting 30 yards downfield through traffic to set the Steelers up with excellent field position (which they subsequently squandered three plays later, but whatever).
Stephon Tuitt: It should come as no surprise that Tuitt, Pittsburgh’s large adult son, spent the vast majority of his Saturday evening in Tennessee’s backfield. He’s only a year removed from a 2016 campaign that saw him ascend to demigod status, playing marvelously in the stead of Cameron Heyward, who missed most of that season with a triceps injury. The biceps injury that befell Tuitt in Week 1 of 2017 derailed any chance he had of repeating his superhuman performance from 2016, so his “return to form” or whatever you’d call it has obviously coincided with his clean bill of health. That he and Cameron Heyward will be bookending the same defensive line this season is gonna be a problem for Steelers’ opponents.
Bud Dupree: Edmunds was credited with intercepting Mariota, but it was Dupree’s backfield pressure that gulled Mariota into hurrying a bad throw downfield. That isn’t really a quantifiable kind of thing, but it’s the type of positive play that’ll turn the tides of close games.
Stock up: Guys on the bubble
Justin Hunter probably should’ve been credited with Landry Jones’ interception in the second quarter since he could’ve prevented it simply by holding onto the ball a little tighter. But he did flash his elite speed, hands, and dexterity on a highlight-reel touchdown catch to open Saturday’s scoring. I think the Steelers will ultimately keep six receivers, and I think we’ll end up seeing Hunter among them. The same can be said for Jaylen Samuels, who accumulated 77 all-purpose yards on 11 touches and had a very crafty touchdown nullified by an offensive penalty. While we’re making roster predictions, I’m gonna throw Matthew Thomas’s name in the hat, too. He was everywhere against Tennessee, racking up a team-leading nine total tackles, at least two of which were on special teams. Most tellingly, however, the Steelers provided Thomas with the opportunity to play with the first team in their “Seminole” sub-package.
The team obviously thinks highly of Vince Williams, and Jon Bostic has had an up-and-down, but mostly alright preseason, so I don’t know if Thomas necessarily has a path to the starting lineup just yet, but I do think it’s easy to envision a scenario in which Thomas is on the field against the likes of Tom Brady or — God, I can’t believe we’re at this point — Blake Bortles in the late stages of 2018.
Stock even: Big Ben
Ben had a nice game, I guess. His arm still works and he didn’t get injured—that’s as good as we can hope for.
Joshua Dobbs didn’t log a single snap against the Titans, which, you know, yikes for him. But he’ll apparently get to start the Steelers’ final preseason tune-up against Carolina this Thursday. In other words, a preseason game that’s meaningless even by preseason standards may determine whether or not Dobbs remains a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s very possible that I’m reading entirely too much into this, but — hear me out — if Dobbs totally craps the bed against Carolina, they aren’t gonna keep him on the roster, right? They can’t justify it.
But what if he balls out? Do they attempt to trade him? Do they keep him, even if doing so means keeping four quarterbacks on the active roster (thereby marginally weakening another position group)? Right now, the only quarterbacks who I’m 100% certain will play for the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1 are Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph, which is why I’m putting the arrow firmly in Rudolph’s direction for this week. Having said that, I’m still not sure if Mason Rudolph is a better professional quarterback than Josh Dobbs. Hopefully, the preseason finale will illuminate the situation a little more.