The Revenge of the Bubble Guys: Steelers @ Carolina


As we all know, the interest (or, for some, the only vestige of an interest) in the final preseason game is getting one more look at the roster bubble guys. Which brings up my first question—why is it a “bubble?” I could see a player being “on the bubbly” if he actually makes the 53 man roster. If I were Joe Haden I would be very tempted to invest in some bubbly, although perhaps he should wait until the bye week at this point. Kevin Colbert is perhaps on the bubbly tonight, as he has a nice new contract after 175 wins as GM for the Steelers.

But tonight there is an extra soupçon of intrigue, outside of any sort of bubble, as Vance McDonald is playing. Joe Haden, although he attended the team meeting this morning, is not, but it will certainly be interesting to see the shiny new tight end.

The game began, to no one’s surprise, with Landry Jones at quarterback and no Antonio Brown, no Martavis Bryant, no first-team offensive linemen as far as I could tell, and of course no Le’Veon Bell. We will know when Bell actually signs the offer sheet and reports to the team, because all of our news notification programs will go nuts. But he hasn’t yet. Interestingly, the was no James Conner either on offense that I could see, with all the first half carries going to Terrell Watson, but Conner did play special teams, an area Mike Tomlin had suggested he needed to improve. He had a tackle or two and a personal foul, which probably didn’t greatly improve Tomlin’s assessment of his special teams play.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s what I saw up until halftime—condensed, naturally:

The Pittsburgh offense looked great until it didn’t. Terrell Watson continues to get yards by the handful, and Landry Jones continues to look great until something goes wrong, and boom, the ball is in the other team’s hands.

The defense has had some great moments, including what looked like a fumble recovery until it was ruled that it was merely incomplete. Trey Williams managed to draw half the punting gunners to his side while the ball bounced into the end zone, which was pretty slick. Someone making good decisions back there who isn’t AB? Novel concept.

But the self-inflicted wounds, as Tomlin would call them—two personal foul penalties in the first 14 minutes of the first quarter, are doubtless causing some angst on the Pittsburgh sidelines.

You could also say this about the defense—they look great until they don’t. But to be fair guys were constantly rotating in and out, and perhaps they couldn’t always remember if they were on or off the field.

But I don’t think anything we’ve seen so far in the game has made it seem like the Joe Haden pickup was unnecessary. Ultimately it may not work out particularly well. Brandon Boykin seemed like a great pickup, but he didn’t play like one, and I suspect he was playing injured some amount of the time. Haden just had repairs on both groin muscles this off-season. It’s a credit to him that, with little but pride left to play for last season, he played through the injury for almost all of it. We saw with Mike Mitchell’s first year how that negatively affects one’s play, which is scarcely a surprise. Here’s hoping Haden rebounds well.

But to return to the subject at hand, which is the actual game, to my surprise Landry Jones was only in for two series. The first was a 4-and-out, if I may so characterize it—his first pass went for first down yardage to Justin Hunter, who is having a big game, but they didn’t quite manage 10 yards on the next three plays. His second series was a number of handoffs to Terrell Watson for an average of five yards per pop. And then Jones dropped back to pass, was under pressure, and I have to assume the ball was deflected, as it wobbled its way directly into the hands of a Panthers defensive player, with nary a Steelers receiver nearby. And that was his last play of the game.

Frankly I thought it an odd decision to remove him at that point, unless he was actually injured on the play (and there was no indication of that.) I can’t think it does great things for your confidence to be pulled for the rest of the game right after an interception. And it’s pretty clear at this point that Jones is the backup if anything goes wrong, so you would think he could use the reps.

Joshua Dobbs came out for the next series and put a score on the board, although let’s be fair—it was Terrell Watson who obtained most of the yards on the field goal drive. Dobbs did roll out for a pass to David Johnson for first down yardage and a few other short completions. But Watson looked like a stud, and I was impressed with his ball security as well. I noted Xavier Grimble doing some lead blocking for him, and apparently Vance McDonald’s run blocking was good in his 10 snaps. So there’s that.

Dobbs came back after a three-and-out by the defense, featuring one James Harrison, and threw a 40-some yard bomb to Justin Hunter, who ran it in for a touchdown. The defense probably hates eight-second drives, but they are pretty exciting for the rest of us.

Unfortunately the next three series were less exciting, as they were three-and-outs.

The defense was really clogging up the running lanes until late in the 2nd quarter, at which point Cameron Artis-Payne, who is appropriately named, seemed to make the D forget everything they knew. Joe Webb, now in at quarterback, threw a touchdown pass in which Jacob Hagen blew his assignment. However, Hagen made up for it by ending the half with an interception.

The defense had some great moments, but also times they looked like they didn’t know who was supposed to do what, at least in the secondary. Which was probably the case. Old Man Harrison had a sack, since a day without sacking the quarterback is like a day without sunshine for him. Cam Sutton continues to look like he belongs, as does Mike Hilton. Javon Hargrave continues to get from one bit of the field to another in surprisingly little time. Tyson Alualu and L.J. Fort both knocked down passes.

As noted, though, the news is scarcely all good. There were way too many missed tackles as the half went on. Communication problems, either between the players or between the different parts of guy’s brains, seemed increasingly frequent. Harrison looked pissed off. Oh wait, he always looks that way, except immediately after he gets a sack. And Big Dan McCullers’ only mention was when he was flagged for illegal formation during the extra point kick. Not good.

During the first half the Panthers played a video tribute to Dan Rooney, which was nice. Which reminds me that the reason the Steelers always seem to play a preseason game in Carolina is because they do. Owner Jerry Richardson quickly became friends with the Rooneys, especially Dan, when he bought the team, and this is by arrangement between the teams, in case you were wondering.

The first half ended with a score of PIT 10, Carolina 14. It would stay that way for almost all of the remainder of the game. Even Bud Dupree was caught yawning on the sidelines, sometime in the 4th quarter.

But there were still plenty of guys to look at. As mentioned, Trey Williams was on punt return duties, but unfortunately for him, all the goodwill he had accumulated appeared to evaporate when he muffed a catch. Luckily DaShaun Phillips grabbed it. That was Williams’ last time as a punt returner, with all subsequent punts being fielded by Demarcus Ayers, who was finally on the field after missing most of the preseason. He did a good job, too.

Once again I’m getting ahead of myself, though. The second half began in encouraging fashion, with Carolina pinned at their own 11 thanks to a penalty. Malik Golden intercepted the pass on 3rd-and-long, and could have easily taken it into the end zone except that he pulled up with a groin strain and struggled just to get out of bounds at the Carolina 14 yard line. He was only one of the increasing body count, which will be enumerated later.

Rather depressingly, the Steelers, still quarterbacked by Dobbs, were unable to get into the end zone, although it presumably made Ivan happy that every single one of the plays, including 4th and 1, was a handoff to Terrell Watson. They didn’t get it, and turned the ball over on downs, but since it was at the Carolina 5 yard line it wasn’t so bad.

After that, however, was a whole lot of nothing, at least if you are fond of scoring plays by either team. Some defensive players were making their mark in the second half, including, ironically, Big Dan McCullers, who must have divined my thoughts as I wrote it during the halftime commercials and gotten annoyed. Anything to waken the sleeping giant. L.J. Fort had a heck of a game as well, and Tyler Matakevich continued to show that he never gives up on a play. Brian Allen had a big pass interference penalty called on him but also made some nice plays.

One name which wasn’t called any more was Cameron Sutton. It was announced most of the way through the 4th quarter that he had left with a hamstring injury. Jordan Dangerfield left with an ankle injury. The Steelers may have to see if they can get a special dispensation to keep an extra 10 players or so to replace the almost daily injuries, or so it seems. Someone else I barely knew was on the team (Terrish Webb) was also injured.

Other than the constant parade of injured players being taken off the field, the most exciting thing to happen in the 4th quarter was Graham Gano missing a 51-yard field goal attempt. He too is in a roster battle, although not with the Steelers of course.

And then everything changed. Cobi Hamilton should have had a touchdown, but the ball was punched out from behind by an alert defender, rolled into the end zone for a touchback, and the Panthers had the ball, and the lead, with 1:20 in the game. Mike Tomlin, the horrible clock manager, or so many will tell you, used up all his timeouts to stop the clock after Carolina handoffs, and the Steelers offense got the ball back with 1:20 in the game and almost 60 yards to go. Marcus Tucker came out of nowhere and gained most of the yardage himself on several pass plays, including one where he was forced out of bounds at about the 1 yard line. And with nine seconds left in the game Joshua Dobbs kept the ball and ran untouched into the end zone. Oh joyous day! Steelers win, 17 to 14.

But for a lot of guys it won’t be very joyous soon. The Steelers only have a few days to cut down from 90 (minus, I supposed, the overly wounded) to 53. And this is definitely a job I don’t envy the coaching staff.

Which reminds me of another interesting item, courtesy of Bob Labriola, as usual. He was asked who actually tells the player that they lost the lottery. I gather on at least some teams it is some sort of lowly assistant coach, but Labriola said that on the Steelers it is either Tomlin or Colbert. Which is as it should be. If you are going to make decisions that for some guys are probably life and death, you should know the cost.

And so the waiting begins, in Momma’s least favorite part of the season. I wish all the young men well who don’t make the cut, and wish them well in their life after the Steelers, unless, of course, they make the practice squad or sign with Baltimore.


  • First, lets talk about Dobbs. He is certainly a project and nowhere near ready, not even close. But Homer would argue that Josh might have had the best pre-season of anyone on the roster. Not in performance, but in what he gained from it. He lacks consistency and his mechanics are still very, very shaky, but it has become clear that Dobbs has the power arm, the speed, and the brains to be a star. Whether fixing his mechanics will lead to improved accuracy is still an open question, and whether book smarts will translate into instant field recognition is another critical question. But there is no substitute for experience, and – with LJ out most of the pre-season, Dobbs was on the field the majority of the time in the pre-season. Yeah, he had six or seven three-and-outs in a row last night, behind second and third string linemen, but most of those involved run-run-pass sequences that you could predict from 500 miles away. (Homer did.) Joshua Dobbs is everything good and bad that we thought he was when we drafted him, and he’s coming along more quickly than would be expected. It ain’t soup yet, but when it is, it could be very, very good.

    Second, Watson and Davis. Davis can return kicks. Davis is much in the mold of Bell in that he’s a solid receiving option our of the backfield. No question Watson had a better camp. Watson had a spectacular camp. Don’t have a clue which one Tomlin will keep – or maybe both.

    Jacob Hagen made some big plays against small competition late in the game, but earlier in the game, there were times he looked hesitant and seemed to miss a couple of tackles or took the wrong angle. Want to look at the tape to make sure. The kid had a pick and laid a couple of big hits, but he looks like possible PS material. Didn’t seem ready for the varsity yet, even with the injuries at safety. With Mitchell having been out and Dangerfield hurting his ankle, that’s getting scary back there.

    Ayers looked great returning kicks, but we don’t have a 54 man roster. He sure looked good, but who goes?

    Matekevich had some great stats last night, but there’s a caveat here. He looked all-world in the second half against second and third teamers. Those aren’t the types he’ll see in the regular season. Homer loves Dirty Red, but he pre-season play is not a sure-fire predictor of how he will perform against first stringers in real games.

    Hawkins had an awful pre-season and got beaten to the outside on a corner blitz on the Landry Jones interception. The corner beat him to the outside, looped around, and hit Jones’ arm, resulting in the wobbly pass and the pick. Hawkins looked great last summer, got hurt, and had a difficult pre-season this year, to put it mildly. With all the depth at OL, he is definitely on the bubble, but will be on somebody’s roster next week. Maybe not the Steelers. Would love to be a fly on the wall when Munch and Tomlin discuss Hawkins.

    I’d also like to hear what Lake, Butler, and Tomlin have to say about the Brian Allen Project. He’s also who we thought he was, and even more. Don’t think there’s room for him on the 53, but you really, really, really want to hang on to him. Maybe that mysterious injury to his zorch or his borgarigmus muscle might land him on the IR list for season. It’s a shame he got hurt last night, but at least he’ll have a full season to recover and learn the playbook

    It’s a good thing they picked up Vance McDonald and Still Joe Haden earlier in the week, because today Colbert can spend his time working the phones and try to package some of his bubble types and maybe a backup OL and/or receiver for draft picks or some secondary or ST depth. Other teams have needs, and they all look to teams where there are logjams at certain positions. The Steelers have logjams at OL and WR (and DL), and other teams often covet Steeler players. The phones will be ringing off the hook.
    The NFL front offices will be crazy street today, with all the teams going from 90 to 53. Big day for the Turk, and a lot of dreams will end by 4pm this afternoon. Stay tuned to ESPN or NFL net at 4pm today and see what familiar names are looking for work.

    Coach wants to see you. Bring your playbook.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Totally agree about Dobbs. He’s not ready for anything now, but there’s at least a chance he could be for real someday.

      As for Matakevich, the thing I like that won’t be effected by the level of competition is the eternal motor. There was at least one play where he made a tackle after a short-ish gain when he started from the opposite side of the field. He’s not the biggest or the strongest, but he’ll wear you out, outwork you, and out-film-study you, and as a coach you’ve got to love that. It’s part of what got AB where he is now, although I suspect he started out with more physical talent.

      Uh, coach, I think I have a headache and need to lie down, and the playbook is the only pillow I’ve got. I’ll get back to you next week…


  • With 35 names to call, the Turk will be a very busy guy today. If he started at 10:00 am, took a 30 minute lunch and the finished at 5:30, he would need to cut 5 guys per hour, or one every 12 minutes. A very busy guy indeed.


  • I would bet a lot of money that this is the only write-up of this game, indeed of any pre-season game, perhaps of any game in the last few years, that has the following line:

    But tonight there is an extra soupçon of intrigue,

    Thank you Rebecca for such wonderful writing

    Earthling (who really doesn’t understand the whole blog business when all I wanted was an official name but who is also going to stop complaining about it)


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