I’m gonna preface the stock report with a couple hundred words about erstwhile Steeler Antonio Brown, so I figured I’d give you, dear reader, the opportunity to skip this part lest I be accused of peddling clickbait or whatever. Or you can read it. I’m fine regardless.
Those of you who stuck around are by now intimately familiar with the ongoing saga between Brown, the NFL, and the Oakland Raiders—no matter how hard you tried to avoid it. Believe me, I know. The crux of the whole ordeal is Brown’s steadfast insistence on using a helmet that has been disallowed by the NFL for failing to adhere to whatever arcane and nebulous standards comprise the league’s mandated “equipment requirements.” In protest, Brown skipped a bunch of practices but seemingly relented after finding a newer version of his preferred model thanks to a shrewd crowdsourcing effort via Twitter, only to sulk once again when that model failed a baseline safety test. Mercifully, an armistice was apparently reached Tuesday, with Brown reporting to practice, certified helmet in-hand, two days after the Raiders—who were purportedly in Brown’s corner at the onset of these proceedings—publicly called him out, implicitly threatening to go nuclear if he wasn’t “all-in”.
Putting aside the absurdity of tightly regulating a piece of equipment that is virtually useless when it comes to preventing concussions—such warnings are literally emblazoned on the backs of helmets—and that the NFL is an evil, draconian enterprise, Brown came away from this whole thing looking like a chump. This was unavoidable. Indeed, by choosing to die on this hill, Brown was left with two options: putting his money where his mouth is and holding out a la Le’Veon Bell (staging a holdout to protest what is and what is not permissible equipment, thereby forfeiting many millions of dollars, would’ve been real dumb), or making his hangdog return once his employer turned up the heat. Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t.
My hot take is that Brown, emboldened by his daring exodus from Pittsburgh, became overconfident. Not only did he manage to break free from a situation that he perceived as being unfavorable (while under contract, no less), he secured an even more lucrative contract from his new team. You pull that off, then you’ve shifted the paradigm. If Brown can strong-arm his former employer into trading him at below market value and eating $21 million to boot, why wouldn’t he think that he could finesse his way into playing the 2019 season in his preferred 10-year-old helmet or a friggin’ catcher’s mask if he wanted? A very sick part of me is kinda bummed that Brown’s endeavor proved fruitless, as this incredibly stupid controversy ultimately became just the latest example of NFL management exercising its omnipotence over its workforce, but the front-facing part is thankful that if Brown’s gonna spend the year moping, it’ll be on a sideline 3000 miles away. I’ll also allow that I was about 99 percent sure that Brown was gonna stage a veritable holdout, get traded to the Patriots for a seventh-round pick as a result, and then pace the league in yards, receptions, and touchdowns on his way to claiming Super Bowl MVP honors. I would’ve died.
(Oh, one more thing: speculating about Brown’s mental health is gross and inappropriate. We should not make light of brain damage or mental health issues because it fits neatly into the narrative.)
Mason Rudolph, Stock Up: Last time we checked on Rudolph, he’d thrown a pair of touchdowns against Tampa Bay and exhibited the kind of poise that generally isn’t inherent to second-year quarterbacks, especially ones with limited in-game experience. He didn’t throw any touchdowns against Kansas City in his second outing of the preseason but did look mighty comfy in the pocket and even made a handful of good throws. Look at this laser-guided missile that he fired directly into the mitts of James Washington:
Dez Bryant was right: this feller can play.
Josh Dobbs, Trending Very Slightly Down: The competition for the backup quarterback spot is probably tighter than Mike Tomlin’s letting on, so any hiccup is going be magnified, expounded upon, and likely overblown (which is what I’m going to do right now). Consider the following play, on which Dobbs sailed a pass over the head of a wide-open Diontae Johnson into the arms of Charvarius Ward:
Chiefs DB Charvarius Ward intercepts Steelers QB Josh Dobbs in the end zone, and returns it all the way near midfield pic.twitter.com/2MxvhJcC3B— Main Team (@MainTeamSports) August 18, 2019
Note the field position and time on the clock: this should’ve been guaranteed points.
This isn’t to suggest that, because Dobbs made one critical error, Rudolph has surpassed Dobbs on the depth chart. Dobbs, much like Rudolph, delivered a laserbeam pass of his own to Washington and, unlike Rudolph, converted a 3rd-and-5 on the ground in which he sent no fewer than three Kansas City Chiefs to the infirmary with liquified ankle bones. Dobbs’ stock is only “down” because of the interception.
Running backs: No movement
It was nice to see James Conner grease the wheels a bit, but I am of the mind that he, along with Ben Roethlisberger, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and any defensive player of relative note should be sequestered to a hotel room during the remaining preseason games. Jaylen Samuels scored a touchdown, and I genuinely hope that Tomlin and Co. utilize him frequently this season, whether that be out of the backfield, as the H-back, with his hand in the dirt, or lined up on the outside. This is a baseless love affair and I won’t apologize for it.
James Washington, Stock up: Here is a thoroughly stupid and pointless but nonetheless fun fact: James Washington ranks second in the NFL in receiving yards through two preseason games, which is due in large part to the fact that six of his eight receptions have gained 20 or more yards. I certainly don’t fancy myself a highly-proficient Xs and Os Football Knower, but I’d reckon that Washington’s noteworthy stat-line probably has a thing or two to do with his newfound penchant for getting wide-open:
Washington has, conservatively, two full strides on his man on the above-referenced play.
Being that it’s the preseason, any big-time expectations for Washington or what he could bring to the Steelers offense ought to be tempered. With that said, the departure of Brown frees up somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 targets, so Washington should have plenty of chances to eat this season. It’s worth bearing in mind that the no. 2 receiver on the Steelers last season accumulated more than 100 receptions and 1,400 yards.
Donte Moncrief, Stock down: Moncrief’s entry on this list has less to do with his singular contributions—which were kinda grim: one reception for one yard and fumble, yuck—and more to do with Washington emerging as a capable secondary receiver and Diontae Johnson looking like a dude who belongs in the lineup.
Diontae Johnson, Stock up: Johnson scored one touchdown that was called back thanks to a dubious offensive pass interference ruling and another that was allowed to stand despite the ball maybe kinda squirming around a bit too much as Johnson Completed The Act Of Surviving The Ground or whatever. I’m sure all Steelers games will be devoid of controversy henceforth!
This is the part where I’ll disclose that, in my opinion, legislating—or more accurately attempting to legislate—pass interference is a hilariously retrograde policy, one that eschews immediacy and simplicity in favor of agonizingly thorough frame-by-frame overviews of sequences that are literally impossible for a human person to perceive in real time. Even if you confine the discussion of instant replay to objectively evaluable instances—Did the receiver’s foot make contact with the back line?; Did the ball break the plane before the knee made contact with the ground?—you’ll still find that the parties responsible for reviewing and adjudicating the replays can be error-prone. The National Football League existed for almost 100 years before anyone determined the mechanisms that comprise a valid catch, for Godsakes. It’ll take at least another hundred for us to aptly define the parameters for reviewable pass interference. This rant is over.
Chukwuma Okorafor, Zach Banner, and Jerald Hawkins, Stock down: If you see any one of these guys playing more than a handful of snaps in the regular season, something has gone horribly awry. Okorafor in particular could not impede a toddler’s escape from a phone booth.
Linebackers: Stock up
Devin Bush showed all the he needed to show against Tampa Bay; I’m fine leaving him on the shelf for the reminder of the preseason. The same can be said for T.J. Watt, who nearly pressured Chad Henne into throwing an interception, and Bud Dupree, who contributed a pair of sacks and is hopefully finally getting around to having that breakout campaign we’ve been waiting on for the past four years. Ulysees Gilbert III had another solid game and appears to be on the inside track to making the final roster. These are all promising developments.
Secondary: Stock up
Joe Haden, our golden god, will eventually make his triumphant return. In the meantime, Artie Burns of all people has thrived in Haden’s stead. Burns generally approaches tackling with the hesitance and indecision of a seventh-grader sheepishly requesting a potty break in front of a packed classroom despite having already soiled their pants, but he put some of those concerns temporarily to rest by making a great form tackle on Tyreek Hill early in the first quarter.
I am as guilty as anyone of ripping on Artie Burns, but I’m sincerely happy to see that, barring a total disaster in the coming weeks, he’ll safely make the 53-man roster. Here is a wonderful article by Jeremy Fowler that outlines Burns’ assumption of primary fatherhood duties following the incarnation of his own father at a South Carolina prison. Among the many delightful vignettes is one that details how Burns moved his two teenage brothers with him to Pittsburgh after he was drafted. Both enrolled in Pine-Richland High School, which is widely considered to be among the topmost public schools in the entire state. Say what you will about Burns’ abilities; the NFL could use more dudes like Artie Burns.
Also, apparently Cameron Sutton has been killing it at camp and Mike Hilton, who will tackle a bulldozer if needed, is open to playing some free safety. That gives the Steelers seven warm bodies to man five open secondary slots. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Tomlin and Keith Butler play around with the lineups a bit early in the season.