It was a mostly brutal night for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Friday, on both sides of the ball in their preseason home opener against the Detroit Lions.
The Lions came in and did pretty much whatever they wanted to the Steelers all night long, leading to the 13-point win at Heinz Field.
Much like I will do in the regular season, I took at look at each position group on the Steelers and graded their overall performances.
Here we go!
Ben Roethlisberger was held out of the game, so it was up to Landry Jones, Bruce Gradkowski and Dustin Vaughan to carry the load under center for the Steelers.
Unfortunately for the black and gold, the trio really struggled to do much of anything well against the Lions.
Right from the opening drive Jones looked really shaky and unsure of himself, often forcing balls into tight windows that he had no business throwing. Outside of a beautiful back-corner touchdown pass to Darius Heyward-Bey, Jones was below average in his two quarters of action, raising many questions about the backup position behind Roethlisberger once again.
Along with Jones, Vaughan really struggled with touch and accuracy in his action that totaled just over one full quarter, coming on in relief of an injured Gradkowski.
Unfortunately for Vaughan, the offensive line put in front of him was downright awful as he was largely under pressure all night long.
Gradkowksi did put the Steelers into field goal position on his final drive before leaving with an injury, but that’s been the issue lately with the veteran: health.
Running back: B-
Daryl Richardson was one of the biggest bright spots offensively, really standing out with his burst, vision and power on the ground for the Steelers.
Richardson picked up 44 yards on 11 carries out of the backfield, while also hauling in two passes for 16 yards in the loss. As Richardson stood out, proverbial No. 3 running back Fitzgerald Toussaint didn’t get to do much with the starting offensive unit, rushing the ball twice for 8 yards, but he did stand out on special teams as an active player on kicks and punts.
Brandon Brown-Dukes received two touches to close out the game and looked balanced and shifty, but nothing else really to note with a guy likely playing for a practice squad spot.
Wide Receiver: C-
DHB made a tremendous touchdown catch in the back right corner of the end zone, somehow getting two feet down over a Lions defender, but he dropped a sure first down earlier in the game and was really hit or miss.
Sammie Coates really struggled against the Lions, dropping a pass and fumbling twice, but he seemed to turn it around late in the game and finished strong.
One guy that really stood out to me was Cobi Hamilton. The former Cincinnati Bengal signed with the Steelers just around one week ago and actually made some nice catches during the second half. He had a few negated due to penalties, but showed a knack for getting open.
Along with Hamilton, I thought that Demarcus Ayers looked good in his NFL debut, while Eli Rogers also impressed out of the slot. Both are essentially competing against each other because they offer similar abilities at receiver, but Rogers has the clear leg up.
Offensive Line: D+
Ugly is a serious understatement, and it wasn’t just the third unit.
Alejandro Villanueva looked overmatched in his handful of series’ against the Detroit defensive line, drawing multiple penalties while also allowing a sack. Even though it’s just preseason football, Villy’s performance Friday raised some concerns with me.
Chris Hubbard showed his position flexibility once again, but he looked downright terrible at times, especially late in the game at right tackle where he was repeatedly beaten off the ball and around the edge.
Rookie Jerald Hawkins also really struggled and definitely showed just how much of a project he really is moving forward. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, they know this and will allow him all the time he needs.
One guy that I was really impressed with was BJ Finney, who looked solid in pass protection and really opened up some big holes in the running game.
Defensive Line: B+
I was so impressed with this group for the most part tonight, especially Ricardo Matthews and rookie Javon Hargrave, both of whom really wreaked havoc along the interior for the Steelers.
Matthews’ pressure up the middle led directly to an interception returned for a touchdown by Doran Grant, while Hargrave nearly created one of his own in the red zone with a nice push up the middle off of a twist with Matthews.
Big Dan McCullers played almost all night long and certainly looked gassed near the end of the game, but it was good to see him out there clogging the middle, even making a few tackles along the way. This is a big preseason for him.
LT Walton missed a tackle that led to a big gain by Lions second-year running back Zach Zenner, but he made up for it with a few solid plays along the line of scrimmage later on.
Ryan Shazier really struggled to wrap up tonight, but when he did he made some great plays, including a big hit in the backfield on Zenner during the first half.
Lawrence Timmons once again looked potent rushing the passer up the middle, while James Harrison turned back the clock and absolutely abused rookie Taylor Decker nearly every snap he was on the field for the Steelers. Harrison even forced one of his trademark strip sacks that Arthur Moats recovered early in the game.
Once the starting unit left the field, things went sideways for the Steelers. While Vince Williams looked solid and made plays all over the field, guys like Jordan Zumwalt and Anthony Chickillo really struggled at times.
Zumwalt showed very little as a pass rusher off the edge, while Chickillo lacked burst at times.
LJ Fort put on a decent performance inside and outside, so the arrow is pointing up for him.
Rookie Tyler Matakevich looked like his old self late in the game, ranging sideline to sideline against the run, racking up a handful of tackles.
Doran Grant really stole the show, returning an interception for a touchdown and recovering a fumble in the second quarter that was ultimately ruled a backward pass, but what really stood out to me was his tackling ability.
That’s what’s going to push him onto the 53-man roster, in my opinion.
Along with Grant, Shamarko Thomas, Robert Golden and Ross Cockrell looked really solid in both phases of the game, with Thomas really being the one that caught my eye. It looks like the light bulb might have finally clicked on for the fourth-year safety.
Rookie Sean Davis was abysmal at times lining up at the nickel corner, getting beat multiple times for first downs, but he came up with some big stops as the game progressed. He put some good and bad things on tape, so this will be a good learning experience for him.
The main issue with this group that dropped its grade was the second half units, which seemingly couldn’t tackle anything and really struggled in coverage.
Al-Hajj Shabazz and Kevin White really struggled to wrap up and bring down receivers in open space, with Shabazz really clamming up on Jace Billingsly’s touchdown gallop in the fourth quarter. It will look just as ugly on film as it did live.
Special Teams: B
Outside of a kickoff return for a touchdown, I thought that both coverage units were pretty strong all night long, especially early on.
Chickillo made a special teams tackle, while guys like Toussaint and Thomas looked solid as well.
Jordan Berry pretty much wrapped up the punting job with a strong night, averaging just over 56 yards per punt. Will Monday crashed and burned on his first punt, a 36-yard punt that really drew the ire of Danny Smith.
Chris Boswell nailed his only field goal of the night, but did miss an open field tackle on Dwayne Washington’skickoff return for a score. Fortunately for the Steelers, Boswell wasn’t injured on the play, so there’s some solace in that outcome.