As promised, I’ll continue to post stock reports after reviewing the tape of each preseason game, telling you what players are trending up, and who is trending down. Here’s my thoughts following the Pittsburgh Steelers 24-19 victory over the Green Bay Packers this past Sunday.
1. QB Landry Jones
Let’s be real, the list of people that expected Jones to bring the Steelers backups back from a 19-9 deficit by scoring 15 points over the final quarter-and-a-half of the game probably has very few names on it. Jones wasn’t overly impressive, but made some big throws down the field when he had to. I know all about the level of competition and the fact that his receivers made some great plays, but credit where credit is due, Jones brought this team back for their first preseason win of the year by playing the best football we’ve seen him play in his three year career.
2. WR Tyler Murphy
Murphy is locking up a practice squad spot with every fine preseason performance, showing off some creativity and elusiveness after the catch. He’s hung on to some tough catches despite getting blown up, and has earned the apparent respect of the coaches during the past month. Four catches for 61 yards and a touchdown have Murphy currently sitting atop the list of receivers competing for spot on the ten man practice squad.
3. OLB Bud Dupree
There was clear improvement from Dupree in his third preseason game, as he worked with much of the starting defense on the Packers second drive of the game and had an excellent three-play series. He had one sack wiped off the board by a penalty, and another later in the game where he was unblocked. While neither of those plays showed anything really special, I was excited to see his increased awareness to track the ball as a run defender. He’s also trying different things as a pass rusher, attempting counters and getting more creative and violent with his hand usage. He’s coming along, but the process will likely still be a slow one.
4. OG B.J. Finney
It wasn’t all good for Finney, but he’s showing clear improvement from my perspective. He’ll never be the most athletic guy getting to the second level or pulling, but when he locks onto you he’s got some vice-grip strength. He can get knocked off his base against power guys, but always seems to re-anchor and fight back to hold his ground. Finney is just a battler who loves to mix it up in the trenches and will fight like crazy to overcome his physical limitations and win every snap.
5. DE L.T. Walton
Walton is really impressing me, showing excellent burst off of the snap and good upper-body quickness to keep blockers off his frame. He’s tough and physical, with an excellent motor to continually hound quarterbacks as a pass rusher. I think he’s locking up the sixth defensive line spot on the 53-man roster, with a big chance for quality reps coming up with Stephon Tuitt out with an ankle injury.
1. S Shamarko Thomas
I don’t want everyone to get up in arms over what is undoubtedly one of the biggest question marks in the Steelers starting lineup, but Thomas has clearly struggled with mental mistakes in coverage over the past two weeks. The result of at least two of those mistakes have been touchdowns, including another on Sunday when he vacated his zone to cover the flat, leaving the post route wide open for Richard Rodgers to score a touchdown right before halftime. Thomas needs to get his assignments down and read his routes more effectively, otherwise the back end of Pittsburgh’s defense is going to be very susceptible to big plays down the field this season.
2. DE Ethan Hemer
Given the explosiveness and improved hand usage that Walton has shown at the point of attack, I think Hemer’s best hope at this point is for a practice squad spot. He simply isn’t the athlete that Walton is, and none of his pass rush moves are quick or precise enough to be effective. There is just a very minimal ceiling for the Wisconsin product, while Walton can be a very good player in time.
3. CB Antwon Blake
I like Blake, but it is becoming apparent throughout the season that, while smart and tough in coverage, he’s going to give up a lot of catches. He’s rarely out of position or beaten for big plays, but he doesn’t have great instincts or an exceptional closing burst back to the ball (his almost interception against Green Bay was the exception rather than the rule). I’ve got no issue with him as the 4th/5th cornerback who will excel on special teams, but there is no way he should be playing snaps over Brandon Boykin.
4. OG/C Chris Hubbard
I think Pittsburgh is being to realize Hubbard isn’t going to become what they’ve envisioned him becoming. He’s struggling to hold his own against second and third teamers, and wasn’t much better at center this past Sunday. He’s so limited in space and can’t sustain second level blocks at all. Hubbard also is constantly too high off the snap and can get himself leveraged easily at the line of scrimmage. He’s not a desirable replacement if someone in the starting lineup goes down injured.
5. RB Braylon Heard
You could list Jawon Chisholm here too, but the position is really his to lose, and while he was unimpressive on Sunday, Heard’s five carries for -2 yards won’t push him much. Heard really hasn’t looked like much in practices or games, which should make Chisholm’s practice squad spot secure, especially with Josh Harris injured and Le’Veon Bell suspended for the first two games of the season.