Attended the third preseason game for another firsthand look at the Black & Gold. There are very high expectations for the 85th edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers. This game supposedly gives us a peek at what the first team offense and defense will look like. We got to see Ben Roethlisberger lead the offense for one quarter; the first team defense played most of the first half.
For the past few weeks, have heard football pundits generally agree that the Steelers are the number 2 team in the AFC. Power rankings rate the Steelers anywhere from 6th to 2nd in the NFL – we all know who is number one, Julian Edelman or no Julian Edelman. These same pundits predict the Steelers winning 11-13 games; their chances of getting to the Super Bowl dependent on being the number one seed.
The first drive began well with Knile Davis doing his best Le’Veon Bell imitation even splitting out as a receiver though the pass on that play was incomplete. Knile gained 21 yards on his first 2 rushes (ironically his total for the game despite 5 more rushes) and another 9 in a reception. Then Indianapolis Colts linebacker John Simon ran around Alejandro Villanueva to smack Ben from behind causing a turnover.
The Steelers first team defense enters the stage. Bend don’t break … and as teams have been able to do with regularity; a quick short pass is completed. The Pittsburgh defense turns this into a Keystone Kops skit as Artie Burns is stopping Donte Moncrief. Robert Golden coming up to finish the play knocks his own player off the opponent enabling a 55-yard gain all the way to the eight-yard line. A 4-yard gain by Frank Gore on first and goal signals trouble. The Colts decide to probe the Steelers defense and send two straight pass plays against Ross Cockrell. He manages to stop the first one for a very short gain. For a nanosecond; I thought he had recovered and forced an incompletion on the second play but then saw the yellow hanky on the field and it was not a Terrible Towel. The replay in the stadium show Cockrell briefly grabbing the back of Moncrief’s jersey as he regained his balance. With a fresh set of downs from the one, Frank Gore easily scores. Inside linebacker Vince Williams got some penetration but Tyler Matakevich did not.
Ben Roethlisberger steered the team to the red zone on the next possession with ease. Once there with first and 10 from the 18 the offense fizzled with a three and Chris Boswell: Knile Davis runs to left for no gain; incomplete pass to Jesse James; incomplete pass to Jesse James. The good news is the Steelers score points. The bad news is that instead of a tie game; the game continues with a four-point deficit.
The Steelers defense does not fare much better for the remainder of the first quarter. The first team is facing a back-up quarterback and back-up center of what is supposed to be a weak offensive line. No worries for the Colts. They don’t bother with third downs. On a 2nd and 4 Frank Gore runs left for 10 yards until Jordan Dangerfield finally tackles him. Then on a 2nd and 13 T.J. Watt is penalized for illegal contact. On 1st and 10, Scott Tolzien throws the ball to Phillip Dorsett against Coty Sensabaugh for another first down. The Steelers defense giving up first downs on the ground; in the air and by penalty. The defense forced their first 3rd down with a minute left in the quarter after a short Tolzien pass is just shy of the first down marker. The quarter ends after a positive play for the Steelers; delay of game. The Colts made an error. After all, Tolzien is a back-up quarterback who has played in nine games after coming into the league as an undrafted free agent in 2011.
After giving up yet another first down; the first team Steelers defense would get some redemption via an interception by Ryan Shazier. It would prevent the Colts from scoring more points on their second drive but the Steelers offense was unable to convert the turnover into points for themselves.
Now this is a preseason game; so, my interest is more about individual player performance; especially those vying for a roster spot e.g. Ross Cockrell versus Coty Sensabaugh; Fitzgerald Toussaint versus Knile Davis; Sammie Coates versus Justin Hunter. However; my expectations have risen since this edition of the Steelers is supposed to be one of the most explosive offensive units in the league. A lot of sports journalists believe the defense has improved and could be a top ten unit.
Following the game, I listened to a variety of reporters reviewing the game. The gist seemed to be that it is not time to hit the panic button. After all; Le’Veon Bell will show up in September and he is in tip-top shape and is a plug and play component to the team that doesn’t require training camp. Mike Mitchell wasn’t available and he is a deterrent to those short passes over the middle and is a key communicator. Cam Sutton looked very good in later stages of game and could be a starter by season’s end. The Steelers play the Colts again in the regular season and they are not going to reveal all their play calls. Average fans don’t understand what the preseason is intended for ….
Well, I’m just an average Steelers fan and respect the observations of most of the sports reporters covering the Black & Gold. They have a much deeper knowledge of the game than I ever will, and yet …. I just can’t get that first quarter out of my mind. A promising opening drive truncated by a missed blocking assignment. A red zone opportunity that fizzles. The defense allowing a back-up quarterback look like Tom Brady, missed tackles, silly penalties whether ticky-tacky or not they still count. The offense looked average at best; the defense well below average. I’m not ready to say this team won’t be in the playoffs but also not ready to anoint them AFC champions. As coach Mike Tomlin says; this Steelers team is a work in progress … I believe him. My confidence in the Steelers would be much stronger if they had jumped out to a 24-0 lead after one quarter of play.
There were over 800 comments in the Steelers Depot Live Update and Discussion threads during the game. I have not read every one; but a few stood out. Steelers Depot creator Dave Bryan opened the commentary with a mantra … “No injuries, No injuries, No injuries ….” The Steelers were relatively healthy going into the game. Just four players not in uniform: Mike Mitchell, Keion Adams, Senquez Golson and Steve Johnson. One starter in Mitchell and a bubble player who probably has now lost an opportunity to make it in Steve Johnson. Adams & Golson have already been written off by most. Maybe Adams makes the practice squad. Chris92021 also had a comment that many seemed to agree with; “Steelers defense is in midseason form. They give up a lot of yards, play tentative in the secondary, and need Ryan Shazier to be healthy and do amazing stuff like that. Please stay healthy, 50.”
Not to be a nattering nabob of negativity; there were some positive aspects to this game that can be pointed out. Steelers Depot reader Agustin-ARG stated what a lot of people were probably thinking when JuJu Smith-Shuster limped off the field with yet another injury … “juju golson.” Thankfully, he came back and was productive in the second half. Apparently just a scare. Another scare was Martavis Bryant getting leveled with his left leg twisted behind him. Somehow, he popped up injury free. The only significant injury seemed to be Fitzgerald Toussaint who suffered a contusion on the leg. We’ll find out later today if this is going to keep him from practicing during a very short week due to Pittsburgh’s last preseason game coming on this Thursday. So, my major takeaway; is that despite having the “most physical training camp” in the NFL; the Steelers are a healthy team up to now and looking to get stronger once Le’Veon Bell shows up and young players like Cam Sutton continue to develop.
I’m looking past the 4th preseason game. Steelers may start cutting players as soon as today (Monday) but no later than this Saturday 37 players will be cut with up to 10 destined for the practice squad. I’m not looking to the playoffs; the Steelers have some convincing to do. I’m looking no further than the first game against Cleveland Browns. Hue Jackson has named DeShone Kizer his starter. Will the Steelers dominate or will the defense let the rookie quarterback look like Tom Brady?
Steelers Depot reader The Chin inspired my music selection for this article with his comment in the Steelers Vs Colts: Winners and Losers article: “loser Knile Davis. Yes Knile. Not to be confused with Nile, which indeed runs north and south.” After gaining 21 yards on his first two carries; Davis netted 21 yards on total carries. He needs to run like an Egyptian river – North and South! But before you run; you got to Walk Like an Egyptian.