Are you ready for some football? Are you ready for some football that actually bears a resemblance to what we usually see on Sundays? Because that is hopefully what’s in store tonight as the Pittsburgh Steelers face the New Orleans Saints in Louisiana. Both teams have dropped their first two preseason games, but especially in the case of the Steelers, on the offensive side of the ball, their contests have been a parade of backups and worse.
That should be different in tonight’s third preseason game, the ‘dress rehearsal’ for the regular season, during which players such as Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Le’Veon Bell, and DeAngelo Williams are expected to see their first, and perhaps only, football action until opening day.
Among those that we will not see, however, are a couple of the Steelers’ most recent first-round draft picks, as both Artie Burns and Bud Dupree are out with ailing injuries. Burns sounds like he’s close to returning, and might get a long burn in the final preseason game, but Dupree may be a bit further along. Cody Wallace should be sidelined with a hyperextended knee, while rookie Jerald Hawkins remains out with a shoulder injury. Roosevelt Nix (undisclosed), Bruce Gradkowski (hamstring), Dustin Vaughan (finger), and Daniel McCullers (knee) are also expected to miss the game, but Anthony Chickillo is said to be dressed.
About 15 minutes before game time, Missi Matthews dropped an interesting tidbit, saying that the Steelers want to give rookie Tyler Matakevich to work signal-calling duties on defense whenever the third-team unit gets out onto the field late in the game. That should give you a pretty strong indication about their consideration of his potential. They are giving him the opportunity to force his way onto the roster.
Sammie Coates was the first player lined back deep to receive the opening kickoff. Fitzgerald Toussaint as the up back took the kick, however, and returned it out to the 26. Roethlisberger and the first-team offense finally took the field for the first time, and on first down, he threw a bit hot to Jesse James on his second read, bouncing off the tight end for an incompletion. He found Bell in the flat on second down, making a tackler miss for a first down and more.
Working in the no huddle, now from the 39, Wheaton took a bubble screen and stepped back to make a defender miss for a four-yard gain. With four wide, a timing pattern for Brown connected for another first-down. Eli Rogers, by the way, has been running in the slot as the third receiver. From midfield, DeAngelo Williams at the target over the middle, but for an incompletion which looked to be a drop. On second down, Roethlisberger targeted Rogers deep, but too deep, and well-covered. On third down, Rogers caught the pass this time to convert over the middle of the field.
From the 40, a quick throw and catch to Brown encroached near the 30. An inside screen went to Jame for first-down yardage, but Maurkice Pouncey was flagged for a hold. On second and three, Bell got his first carry since his knee injury in live tackling and slipped through a crease for an easy first. Roethlisberger found James over the middle again for a nine-yard gain. Bell got the first-down to set up first and goal.
Williams got the ball in the flat for a four-yard gain to the five on the first play. On second down, Roethlisberger was wide for Rogers, who was covered well at the front of the end zone. On third down, after escaping pressure, Roethlisberger stepped up and found James in the end zone for the touchdown.
With the first-team offense highly successful, the first-team defense gets a crack at following suit, with the Saints offense beginning from the 24 after a 25-yard return from a yard deep in the end zone.
A Drew Brees pass to C.J. Spiller in the flat led to a six-yard gain on first down, but Stephon Tuitt made the stop in the run game for a two-yard loss. Jarvis Jones almost got home on third down, but Brees shoveled the pass to the back, falling incomplete. Rogers dropped back to return the punt and was forced to signal for a fair catch.
With Roethlisberger back on the field from the 21, he bluffed the handoff out of the pistol to the left before tossing a screen for Brown for a first down to the 36. Rogers with a block on the screen. Rogers got the pass on the second play for about a seven-yard gain. After a low snap, Roethlisberger looked deep down the left sideline to Wheaton, but the pass was incomplete in tight coverage. On third and three, Roethlisberger found Brown down the left sideline, beating the defender, who fell to the ground, for a long touchdown. Brown was interfered with but still had no issue scoring, as the Steelers lead to two touchdown drives on their first two drives.
Out of the 3-4 on first down for the Steelers defense for the first time, Brees threw a short pass to Coby Fleener for a four-yard gain. Mark Ingram got the handoff on second down near the first-down marker. On third and one, John Kuhn made the conversion.
From the 36, Brees found Fleener deep with Lawrence Timmons trailing in front, nearly in position to make the play, but a hold drew the play back. Jones was held, and otherwise might have gotten home. On first and 20 now, Spiller made William Gay miss in the flat, but only picked up three yards. A pass to the second tight end picked up 11 for a third and six. Brees was flushed out o the pocket on third down and threw the ball away, under pressure from Tuitt and Arthur Moats. A rolling punt dribbled all the way back to the three as Rogers was forced to retreat from the ball, but a penalty on the Saints for illegal touching. An illegal touch within the five-yard line results in a spot at the 20.
Williams picked up a chunk of eight up the middle, running up the back side of his left tackle. On second down, Landry Jones found Darrius Heyward-Bey in stride, but tackled quickly to the 42. Jones followed it up with a beautiful throw down the right sideline in tight coverage, with Wheaton making an excellent catch to follow it up.
A hold on the following play, however, backed up the drive, first and 20 on the 32 of the Saints. A handoff to Williams went nowhere in the backfield. A quick pass to James only picked up a couple, setting up a third and 18. A screen to Bell resulted in a fumble recovered at the 22. It was Bell’s first fumble since his rookie season, though this in the preseason.
In the meantime, Bob Labriola reported on Twitter that Marcus Gilbert was being evaluated for some sort of injury on his left arm.
From the 26, Spiller was gang tackled after a short gain to set up a third and four to start the second quarter. Brees connected with Snead down the middle for a big gain over Timmons, who was also flagged for a pnealty. It was a beautiful throw from Brees, who executed that downfield over the middle throw better than just about anybody, still.
After an eight-yard gain to follow, Brees connected to Snead again under pressure for the conversion. James Harrison was coming. Cameron Heyward sat down on the field, being attended to seemingly on his right ankle.
From the 34, Harrison drew a holding penalty on first down. Ricardo Mathews did a nice job of reading the pass to the back, but was unable to make the tackle on Spiller. Harrison came in and cleaned him up for a loss of two. With Harrison driving Tony Hills into the backfield, Brees was forced to throw low to the back, but a hold in the secondary on Gay gave the Saints a first down.
Travaris Cadet made Ryan Shazier miss on a screen for a sizable gain after the penalty. From the 24, Shazier missed again in the backfield as Ingram picked up about five. Javon Hargrave did a nice job of seizing the back to make the tackle from behind on the next play, though it went for a first down.
From the 13, Gay broke up a pass intended for Josh Hill. On second down, Shazier again missed a tackle, but held up the runner to allow pursuit to make the tackle for a loss. On third down, Snead did an exceptional job of hanging on to a ball in the back of the end zone through heavy contact for the score. Mike Mitchell loosed the ball initially, but Snead stayed concentrated and essentially caught the ball twice. Sean Davis was on the initial coverage and the ball came over the top of him. The score is now 14-7.
Both Gilbert (left elbow) and Heyward (right ankle) have been ruled out for the remainder of the game. Shamarko Thomas and Jacob Hagen also sustained injuries on special teams that ended their nights.
Jones settled on his third read to Williams from the 21 for a short gain. On second down, Jones hit David Johnson for about five yards over the middle. On third down, the Saints blitzed and batted Jones’ pass down for a three-and-out. Jordan Berry‘s punt was angled well to the sideline to force the returner out of bounds after a solid punt. I noted Al-Hajj Shabazz as a gunner on that punt.
Luke McCown took over at the 19 after the punt, and the Steelers stopped the run on first down. Michael Thomas was wide open over the middle for a sizable gain. Shazier made first contact at the line of scrimmage with Moats finishing the tackle for a short gain. On second down, Brandin Cooks came up with the first-down catch.
From the Steelers’ 45, Ingram got he sweep for a gain of about three off the right side. Ross Cockrell could not get home on the clean blitz, and Fleener nearly caught a pass deep down the middle. Davis had some questionable contact on the incompletion. On third down, McCown’s pass to Fleener streaking to the right sideline was wide, with Shazier in coverage, forcing a punt. Instead, the Saints went for it, with pressure getting close, but the pass getting out to the back. Shazier came up to make the tackle and force the turnover on downs.
Williams picked up about two on first down. Xavier Grimble had a nice block around the edge to lead Bell for a seven-yard gain. On third and one, Grimble was open over the middle for a nice gain, his first significant offensive contribution of the preseason. Down to the 30 of the Saints, Jones sidestepped pressure to find Bell for a three-yard gain. Williams picked up about a yard as the Saints took a timeout before the two-minute warning. On third and six, Jones had an easy throw to Bell for the first down.
Inside the 20, a quick pass to Heyward-Bey fell incomplete, a drop despite a bit of a hot pass and slightly off-center. On second down, Williams sat down and got the check-down for a short gain to set up third and long. Bell got the pass short and for the first-down. Heyward-Bey set up the pick to set up the conversion.
Now first and goal from the eight, out of the shotgun, Jones threw the ball away after a sufficient amount of time and pressure closing. He hit Coates for the easy touchdown streaking toward the ball of the end zone as the Steelers hit on their third touchdown pass of the game, the first for Jones. It was a simple corner route from appearances. The score is now 21-7.
Boswell’s third kickoff was fielded a yard deep and returned only to the 15 to start the final drive of the half with less than a minute to play. A screen to Cadet was freed up the right sideline for a nice gain, but Timmons pulled the ball out from behind, and Cockrell looked like he may have secured the ball before rolling out of bounds. The play is going to the booth. The ruling on the field stood, however.
From the 29, Tuitt wrapped up McCown as he threw a lame duck pass, flagged for intentional grounding. The pressure was there again on second down with a deflected pass at the line. A run to end the drive yielded a Steelers timeout to allow for a punt return attempt. Rogers returned the punt to the 27, making the first tackler miss. A knee ended the half.