The Pittsburgh Steelers Play Real Football—Sort Of
Photo via Steelers.com
I suppose my title is not quite accurate. The players were playing real football, but a good many of them were very likely (hopefully?) not the guys that will be suiting up for the regular season. This is, presumably, part of why so many people hate the preseason. Me? I love it. The games are almost worry-free (other than the injury issues) as the end result doesn’t actually matter very much. And it is exciting to see how the youngsters perform in game action.
As for the players, as David DeCastro said, they enjoy the chance to hit other people. I laughed when Tunch Ilkin said the same thing the other day in a post-practice report, but I can see that especially for the veterans it would be a relief. When you’re hitting your own guys you don’t want to be the one that injures someone. While presumably you don’t want to injure other people’s players either—after all, the guy you obliterate could end up being a teammate later on—it surely doesn’t have the same impact as possibly taking out someone you know and whom your team might need down the road.
And speaking of DeCastro, what a contrast his interview with Missi Matthews was to the apparently completely inarticulate guy he was after he was drafted. I don’t recall him ever saying more than about two words together for several years, but he’s gotten quite chatty.
But that’s not what you came here to read, I presume, so let’s get ‘er done.
As I always do in a game, I kept a play-by-play record of the results, but I’m not going to bore you with the minutiae, because this is, after all, the preseason, and a great many of the guys out there will be but a memory after cut-downs. Instead I want to give some impressions of what stood out in what ended up as a 31-14 drubbing of the defending Super Bowl champions.
Things weren’t looking so great at the beginning, when some of the first-teamers were in. The offensive line in particular looked pretty offensive, giving up two sacks of Landry Jones on the first possession for a three-and-out. But in fairness to the O-line, they were barely the starting O-line, as Marcus Gilbert had the night off to be at the birth of his child, Maurkice Pouncey had the night off just because, and so the only starting linemen in position were Villanueva and DeCastro. You had the likes of rookie Chuks Okorafor going up against veterans the like of Fletcher Cox, and it showed. (Although to be strictly accurate, it was DeCastro who he beat for one of the sacks.) And even B.J. Finney wasn’t replacing Ramon Foster, his usual position, but playing center.
On the other side of the ball, those of us with last season’s play-off loss-related PTSD were surely having flashbacks when Jay Ajayi ripped off a couple of big runs, setting up a missed-tackle fest. And some of those missed tackles were from the likes of Jon Bostic, who was brought in to help with this issue. (I wrote at one point “it looks like there was a great deal of confusion in the defense”—not something I want to be writing much this season, unless it is about the opposition.)
But the guys settled in, and not only looked better as the game went on but took the ball away a few times—Coty Sensabaugh, starting in place of Joe Haden, and Cameron Sutton both had interceptions. Rookie Ola Adeniyi forced a fumble, recovered by Keion Adams. The was another forced fumble recovered by Philly, but as Mike Tomlin says, when the ball is on the ground good things can happen.
One of the main things you want to see in the preseason games is no injuries, and the Steelers only had one of note, but it could be a huge one. B.J. Finney was down for a while, but left the field under his own power. Mike Tomlin later characterized it as a “quad contusion,” so hopefully the Steelers dodged a bullet there.
Damoun Patterson also left the field after a big hit, but was back a few plays later. This might be more serious than one would think about a UDFA who wasn’t even signed, only invited, but he did nothing but make plays last night, and flashed even more of the potential he has been showing in training camp. (You may recall he is currently the front-runner for the Isaac Redman award.)
So what are some takeaways from this first game? My first thought is that while the Eagles only started their third-stringer at quarterback, as opposed to the presumed backup to Ben Roethlisberger in Landry Jones, that isn’t quite a fair way to look at it. Jones is a career backup, and there’s no reason at this point to think he will be more than that, although I could see a Case Keenum sort of story where he ends up having a nice run one season in relief of a starter who is injured. But Carson Wentz’s back-up is the Super Bowl MVP from last February—and how odd does it seem to write those words? (Very odd, in case you aren’t a fan of rhetorical questions.) Nick Foles is battling some neck and back issues, so the starter for Philly was their third-stringer, but Nate Sudfield is a guy the Eagles think can be a starting quarterback someplace. He certainly looked the part, both physically and in his calm pocket presence.
And as long as I’m on the subject of quarterbacks, I thought all three guys presented themselves well. Landry Jones was 4 for 4 with a perfect QB rating. Josh Dobbs’ evening was only marred by the pick he threw, but he came right back out and threw a beautiful touchdown pass to, who else, Damoun Patterson, who capped his athletic catch with an even more athletic standing backflip.
This kid is smooth. (Patterson claims, by the way, that the celebration was not premeditated. I’ll bet it is playing on an endless loop on Sportscenter today…) Mike Tomlin was unfazed, as he feels he has the top celebration group in the NFL. (He didn’t put it that way, but I read between the lines…)
And while Mason Rudolph did not throw for a touchdown, he orchestrated three scoring drives that ended with the tiny foot of Chris Boswell putting it between the goalposts as usual. (Chris Boswell does have a tiny foot. At St. Vincent’s they had painted footprints of some of the players along with their shoe sizes on the sidewalk leading to the stands, and Boswell, who is not a short man, has a size 8 foot. Homer J. asked if that was even an adult size, and in fact Boswell can presumably save a lot of money by shopping in the youth section. Here’s hoping he will be willing to settle for a reasonable contract during the current negotiations, based on these savings.)
Both Dobbs and particularly Rudolph looked like they belonged out there—you like to see this kind of confidence. It didn’t help at all with the cut-down decision, though. Or put it this way—Jones did nothing to say he should lose his job, especially when you consider he was playing against more starters. Rudolph looks like he could be the future. Which, as we have suspected all along, makes Josh Dobbs the odd man out, unless the Steelers should decide for some inexplicable reason to carry four quarterbacks.
I was interested to note how long the Eagles kept some of their defensive starters in the game. According to commentator Bob Pompeani, the Eagles coaching staff weren’t exactly happy with their defense. And after the first series, the Steelers took the lead, which they would only relinquish once.
This could also be said about some of the Steelers’ defensive vets, but the veterans with substantial playing time last night were almost exclusively those who are new to the team and who are also auditioning for a starting role, like Jon Bostic. (I don’t think Morgan Burnett played for long, but I would guess they are easing him into things after his hamstring issue.)
Favorite moments of the game? The first had to be the Damoun Patterson touchdown and backflip. But a close second would be seeing Big Dan McCullers, looking very big indeed, chasing down quarterback Joe Callahan, forcing him out of bounds. It was certainly comic relief.
And I can’t recall favorite moments without including the three takeaways. Cam Sutton’s was particularly notable as he ran it back a good way before his blockers failed him. But perhaps the favorite of all was seeing No. 92, Ola Adeniyi, looking for all the world like James Harrison as he did a sort of dip/rip around his lineman, sacked the quarterback, and forced a fumble. Very promising.
While not “favorite moments,” exactly, Marcus Tucker had a couple of big plays, including downing a punt at the 1 yard line. James Washington had some nice catches, although he also had a touchdown pass go through his hands.
Some stuff I didn’t like quite so much? James Conner missing a blitz pickup for Landry Jones’ second sack. But Conner had some impressive runs, and has supposedly been much improved in the backs on backers drills. He just needs to translate that into games. Perhaps it was just nerves.
Obviously I didn’t care for the big holes in the defense from time to time which allowed long runs, or Dashaun Phillips losing contain on his receiver for the first touchdown of the game. I was also disappointed in Jesse James looking much like last season in one of his few opportunities, in that he caught a short pass and was unable to make anything more of it. But maybe this is unduly harsh.
There were two dumb special teams penalties, and the dumbest part was that it was the exact same penalty both times—illegal formation. On the other hand, Philly was much more highly penalized in the game than PIT, who took mostly fairly minor penalties.
As Mike Tomlin would say, there were plenty of teaching moments. I’m very much looking forward to next week’s game in Green Bay, where we can hopefully see that the “teaching moments” resulted in some actual learning.