By David Todd
The Steelers opened their 2013 preseason campaign with an 18-13 loss to the New York Giants at Heinz Field Saturday night in a game that was sloppy and lacking in entertainment almost from the start. From an evaluative standpoint the performance of individual Steelers players largely matched up with what we have seen the first two weeks of training camp. Many of the players who have stood out or flashed at camp did so again Saturday. Those who have struggled in camp mostly continued to do so. The wheat and the chaff are quickly being sifted.
Stevenson Sylvester suffered the only noticeable injury as Markus Wheaton rolled into his lower right leg after Sylvester made a tackle on special teams. Both Sylvester and Wheaton reacted, and I’m guessing Sly made an audible noise when hit. He did get up and run off the field, but didn’t return to the game and was scheduled for X-rays on his right ankle. Early returns from LBs coach Keith Butler have been positive on Sly, but the competition at the backup linebacker spot has become the most interesting in camp. He can’t afford to miss much time.
*Newly-acquired running back LaRod Stephens-Howling looked very good getting some extended work in the first quarter, rushing seven times for 40 yards. LSH showed an ability to quickly hit holes and cut back runs, finding lanes opened by the Steelers new outside zone blocking scheme. He’s a lock for the 53 and his performance Saturday suggests that he could be more than just a 3rd down or change-of-pace back.
*The offensive line opened with Mike Adams at left tackle and Marcus Gilbert on the right side and I’m confident that will be the alignment for the season opener September 8. The starting five played close to 20 plays and showed an ability to open holes in the running game. Gilbert and guard David DeCastro were especially effect on the right side, getting an extended push and driving defenders back downfield on multiple plays.
*Fullback Will Johnson was targeted twice and made two catches out of the backfield. Johnson has good hands and can be difficult to bring down in the open field. He caught one pass in the flat from Roethlisberger and another on a bootleg by Gradkowski. Johnson caught 15 balls last year and was probably under-utilized. With the injuries to the tight ends look for him to have a bigger role in the offense particularly early in the season.
*UDFA wide receiver J.D. Woods out of West Virginia made an excellent catch going up high for a ball and holding on as he got flipped in mid-air landing on his head. He’s still a big long-shot to make the team, but he’s been catching everything in camp and continued to do so last night. He certainly increased his chances of making the practice squad.
*Running back Le’Veon Bell, the number two pick out of Michigan St., was held out for precautionary reasons with soreness in his left knee. Bell has gotten more attention than any player in camp, and while you can’t fault the Steelers for playing it safe, it was disappointing that Bell didn’t make his debut.
*The back-up offensive linemen were every bit as bad as feared. Kelvin Beachum, the back-up at four of the line spots (with Gilbert the likely back-up at LT), was fine at right tackle, but no one else looked good. John Malecki, who appeared hobbled at one point, was barely serviceable at center and he was the best of the group. For some reason tackle Joe Long dressed but did not play. He is probably the best of the rest.
*Landry Jones and Baron Batch collided on a simple hand-off on Jones’ first NFL play resulting in a fumble and a safety. For Batch, who is going to struggle to make the roster, little mistakes like that could be the difference.
*Lots of good here as many of the Steelers back-ups shined. Al Woods gets the game ball with six tackles, three assists and a sack. Woods only played 30 snaps last year but could be in for increased time if he continues to dominate like he did Saturday.
*Alameda Ta’amu embarrassed himself and the team last year. He came to camp out of shape, got injured and didn’t show a high-compete level. On top of that he got arrested for drunk driving and a variety of other charges on his South Side spree. Last year’s fourth round pick started the preseason on the PUP with a hamstring injury and was hardly noticed when activated last week, but it was clear he arrived in much better condition this year. Saturday night Ta’amu made his first positive impression as a Steeler. He was credited with two tackles and was able to get a solid push up the middle on multiple occasions working with the second-team. He took a step toward winning the back-up nose position behind Steve McLendon.
*The back-up inside linebackers were excellent across the board. Kion Wilson, Marshall McFadden, Brian Rolle, Vince Williams and Terence Garvin all did good things (against the Giants 2nd & 3rd team offense). ILB was a position that looked to be sorely lacking in depth coming into camp. As a group these guys went a long way in assuaging those fears. This now appears to be the most interesting position battle in camp.
*Corner Josh Victorian and safety Robert Golden, two personal favorites, had solid nights. Golden’s on the roster, Victorian helped his standing particularly with so many corners out injured. While he’s a bit undersized, he competes and has solid coverage skills and ball skills. Worst-case he’ll be on the practice squad.
*On a 3rd-and-9 from their own 21, Eli Manning found receiver Rueben Randle in the flat for a short gain. Both Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu came up to make the tackle and missed, leading to a 16-yard game and a first down. Three plays later on a 3rd-and-four, Manning found Victor Cruz behind William Gay. Again Clark and Polamalu couldn’t make a tackle and Cruz went into the end zone for a 57-yard touchdown. Rules one and two in Dick Lebeau’s defense are don’t allow the big play and tackle the catch. The Steelers safeties didn’t get it done on that drive.
*Cam Heyward made no impression. A first-round pick in 2011, Heyward is someone the Steelers need to take a step forward this year. With a solid effort from Al Woods, he may not get a chance to compete with Ziggy Hood for the starting RDE job, which would put him behind Brett Keisel again this year. More is expected.
*Shamarko Thomas has a long way to go. Thomas saw very little time on Saturday and what he did was in the nickel. Thomas looked great during OTAs and mini-camp, but hasn’t looked as good in training camp. He’s a great story, an enthusiastic, high-energy individual and has a future in the league. He should contribute on special teams this year, but he’s got work to do.
*Sushi continued right where he left off last year. Rock-solid, ho-hum from 34 and 41. I feel bad for Danny Hrapmann because he appears to be a solid kicker, but he has no chance, barring injury, at winning the job.
*Kashif Moore, J.D. Woods and Reggie Dunn all appear to be capable in the return game. They haven’t had much opportunity, but Plaxico Burress’ injury may mean there is an opening for a return guy. Stay tuned.
*Well Danny Smith now has some tape to look at. This wasn’t a good effort in general but to some degree that is to be expected with no live work done in training camp.
*Damon Cromartie-Smith completely whiffed on a punt block that let Giants third-round pick Damontre Moore in untouched on Drew Butler. DCS is known as a good special teams player. He has used up his practice squad eligibility and can’t make mistakes like that and make the team.
*Putting the ball on the ground is one way to guarantee a short tenure with the Steelers. David Gilreath surely was looking to make an impression but showed questionable judgment fielding one punt inside his own five and fumbling another that he clearly should have fair caught. The competition for the fifth wideout has been better than expected and Gilreath really hurt himself Saturday.
It’s the preseason, not much to critique here.
*Tomlin chose to hold Bell out. While that was disappointing it’s hard to argue with the decision.
*Todd Haley will again be under a microscope this year. The Steelers longest play from scrimmage was 14 yards. While it’s hard to get worked up about this, it will be interesting to see if they start throwing the ball downfield as the preseason moves on.
*The Steelers repeatedly tried to run middle screens, most-often with Jonathan Dwyer, and had no success. I’m not sure why that play should figure prominently in the team’s game plan, particularly with the lack of depth at tight end.
Big Officiating Calls:
*It’s preseason. They generally seemed to get it right.
Up Next: The Steelers will travel to Washington to play the Redskins on national television on Monday August 19. Kickoff is 8:00 pm on ESPN
Reminder: You can hear me and Tom Bradley on the postgame show on the Steelers Radio Network after every Steelers game. You can listen on the Steeler Gameday app, the Steelers Nation Radio app on iHeart Radio or on DVE or 970 ESPN in Pittsburgh. You can hear me weekdays on 970 ESPN from 4-7 pm and you can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.