It may have just been a preseason game Friday night at Heinz Field between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but man that was fun to watch.
Pittsburgh shook off a slow start and bounced back to pull away before hanging on late for a 30-28 win over Tampa Bay to open up the preseason at 1-0, not that the result really matters.
Like I do after every game, I’ll take a shot at grading the position groups. It’s important to remember that this is a preseason game and these are rapid reactions. There were a ton of moving parts Friday night, and the camera angles weren’t great throughout the game, so if I don’t give a take on a certain player at a specific position, like the offensive and defensive lines since it’s really hard to get a feel from the TV few, please understand.
Let’s try not to overreact one way or another based on one preseason game, and let’s not panic over some of the penalty issues the Steelers had on the night. OK, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to the grades.
QB — B+
Joshua Dobbs, Mason Rudolph, and Devlin Hodges all flashed on the night, resulting in a strong performance across the board by the Steelers’ quarterbacks on a night in which star Ben Roethlisberger sat out.
Dobbs opened the game as the starter and hooked up with James Washington right away on a 43-yard bomb down the middle of the field to get the Steelers out of the shadow of their own goal line. Dobbs did undershoot the pass just a bit, resulting in Washington needing to readjust, but he gave Washington a chance and that’s all that really matters.
Aside from the deep ball, Dobbs was a bit scattershot, as Alex Kozora says. Dobbs missed on a couple of throws and avoided an interception by Vernon Hargraves III thanks to a penalty wiping out the pick. Where he did his best work though was with his legs, including an impressive 36-yard scramble after avoiding pressure.
Entering his second full season in the league, Rudolph was expected to take a big step forward in his development and Friday night’s performance against the Buccaneers was a very positive step in the right direction.
Rudolph was calm in the pocket and delivered strike after strike, including two impressive throws to Washington and rookie tight end Zach Gentry for touchdowns. Rudolph looks so much more comfortable in the system in Year 2.
Hodges, the darling of training camp so far, at least at the quarterback position, had himself a strong night, throwing a touchdown to Tevin Jones while also showing good decision making in the pocket and the ability to throw accurately on the move with ball placement and zip. It was great to see the Steelers get him so much work in the second half, and he certainly didn’t disappoint.
RB — C-
It was a rough night for Steelers running backs, at least on the ground.
Jaylen Samuels carried the ball twice and led Pittsburgh running backs in rushing yardage on the night, thanks to a 22-yard run late in the first half, in which he flashed some serious burst getting to the second level.
Aside from that, it was a quiet, frustrating night for the group on the ground.
Rookie Benny Snell carried the ball 13 times for 26 yards, struggling to find running room behind an offensive line that struggled all night long. Snell did miss a chance to break a long run in the second quarter when Ryan Smith got him to the ground in the open field off the left side. He has to win those situations moving forward.
Fortunately for Snell, he flashed some strong hands out of the backfield, finishing with two catches for 25 yards on three targets, including a huge 20-yard third-down conversion deep in Tampa Bay territory on a screen pass from Hodges.
Trey Edmunds looked really, really good as a pass protector in the second half, folding up edge rushers with rib shots on chip blocks, giving Gerald Hawkins some help on the edge. That’s one way, along with his special teams abilities, to make the team. He didn’t have much room on the ground either, finishing with five carries for 19 yards on the ground.
WR — B
Washington sure looks ready, doesn’t he? What a positive sign.
Right away, the second-year product out of Oklahoma State came through with a big catch down the field from Dobbs, and then won a back-shoulder throw from Rudolph for a touchdown. He’s primed for a big year.
Johnny Holton came through with a big play, picking up 60 yards on a big catch and run, showcasing his blazing speed that could help him work his way onto the roster.
Jones flashed a bit as well, winning a couple of contested catches on the boundary working with Hodges, while Diontae Spencer flashed late as a returner and receiver, finishing with two catches for 17 yards, including a nice catch over the middle of the field in the fourth quarter on a rope from Hodges.
TE — C
Gentry looked like Jesse James in the back of the end zone on his touchdown catch on a broken play from Rudolph. That’s where he’s going to carve out a role in his rookie season, right there in the red zone.
Aside from his touchdown catch, he added two others on short dump offs from Rudolph, showing strong hands and a little bit of run-after-catch abilities in short areas.
Kevin Rader likely torpedoed his roster chances with a fumble late in the fourth quarter, letting the Buccaneers right back into the game. He did a nice job working open as Hodges rolled right, but he failed to tuck the ball away at the point of contact and nearly let the Bucs battle all the way back, thanks to his fumble.
OL — D+
Without many of the starters up front, Pittsburgh’s offensive line had a rough night against the Buccaneers.
Chukwuma Okorafor looked downright awful on the left side, struggling with speed off the edge, getting called for a couple of holding penalties. He also looked unsure of who to block on a few instances, turning into a turnstile a few times. Maybe its best he goes back to the right side.
Jerald Hawkins improved as the game went on, showing a strong punch at times, but much like in camp, he struggled with guys getting underneath him and turning the corner.
Zach Banner had an up and down game, flashing his obvious strength and ability to anchor against guys, but didn’t move defenders in the run game like he should have with his size.
Fred Johnson really popped on film at times, especially when pulling on the ground game, and anchoring and passing off stunts in pass protection.
I’ll obviously need to see the coach’s film later this weekend, but it was a rough night overall for the offensive line up front from first view.
DL — B-
Javon Hargrave played a long, long time Friday night, which was very confusing. Was he being punished? Who knows?
When he was out there though he was in the backfield quite a bit, taking advantage of the interior of Tampa Bay’s offensive line in the first half.
Alongside Hargrave, Tyson Alualu looked good early on, but did get called for a roughing the passer penalty that extended a drive for Tampa Bay. Aluala used his hands well and flashed a bit as a pass rusher, which is a positive for the Steelers moving forward.
Isaiah Buggs popped on screen a few times in his rookie debut, finishing with three run stops and a fumble recovery.
Late in the game, Henry Mondeaux flashed quite a bit at defensive end, getting into the backfield a few times which helped the Steelers hang on late.
Not much else to write about here though, at least from first viewing.
LB — A
Sweet Moses, what a night for rookie linebackers in black and gold.
Write it down: Devin Bush, Tuzar Skipper, and Ulysses Gilbert III punched their tickets to Canton Friday night.
All jokes aside, those three rookies were terrific when on the field against Tampa Bay.
Bush flashed right away, flying all over the field on his way to 10 first-half tackles, which ended up leading the Steelers on the night. His speed and instincts are a real game-changer for Pittsburgh’s defense. That was so fun to watch.
In the second half, Skipper and Gilbert III were nearly unblockable, combining for seven quarterback hits, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble on the night. Both showed really good pass rush moves on the night, working around blockers consistently when Tampa Bay dropped back to pass.
Tyler Matakevich had a really strong defensive game too, recording a sack of his own and a forced fumble that Buggs recovered. Dirty Red has a roster spot; don’t get it twisted.
JT Jones had a strong game off the edge, aside from a few penalties. He applied pressure all night long. Tegray Scales also had a strong game playing the run, finishing with four tackles and a pass deflection,
The man of the night early on though, aside from Bush obviously, was Ola Adeniyi. Adeniyi continued a torrid start to his second year by recording five tackles, one quarterback hit, and a number of pressures off the edge. He also had a big tackle on special teams. The Steelers might have something special with Ola, folks.
Inside, Robert Spillane had a nice night. He was picked on quite a bit through the air, but finished with two pass breakups and should have had a forced fumble on special teams that was somehow not called a fumble on the field, or after clear evidence on review.
Lastly, Anthony Chickillo simply can’t rush the passer. He just can’t. He has no initial rush move, zero sense of how to develop and deploy a counter, and is just a guy there.
DB — C
Justin Layne definitely needs a redshirt year.
Layne missed a tackle on two Buccaneers touchdowns in the open field, showed a lack of awareness in coverage, and was just generally slow to react in certain situations. It’s still super early with him, in terms of long-term development, but it was a rough night for the third-round pick. That said, he did finish with eight tackles on the night, good for second on the team behind Bush.
Terrell Edmunds missed a couple of tackles in the first half, but was generally around the ball quite a bit. He looks like he’s reacting instead of guessing this year.
I liked what I saw from Marcelis Branch on the night, aside from that penalty he received for a hit late in the game over the middle. He broke up a pass in the end zone and really seemed to fly around late in the game.
Dravon Askew-Henry looked explosive at times coming downhill from the safety position and finished with three tackles, while Cameron Sutton is definitely the No. 4 corner on this team and should probably get more looks on defense.
I don’t really have many gripes overall with the group, but they let the Buccaneers throw all over them, especially late.
Special Teams — C+
Spencer ripped off a 35-yard kick return in the game and averaged 13 yards per punt return, making a case for the roster, while Holton got a chance to return kicks as well, shaking off a rough first return to have an average night.
Chris Boswell went 2-for-2 and looked like 2017 Boz on the night, while Matthew Wright drilled his lone field goal attempt of the game, helping the Steelers’ kickers go 3-for-3 in the game.
At punter, Ian Berryman boomed a 66-yard punt, but didn’t get another chance the rest of the night, largely due to his inability to keep that 66-yard punt in play, crushing it through the end zone for a touchback.
Jordan Berry punted twice for 89 yards, dropping one inside the 20-yard line. He looked solid, but he needs to get a little more distance to help the Steelers pin opponents deep and really flip the field.
Aside from individual performances, I’d really like to see Danny Smith clean up the infractions on special teams. Time and time and time again on Friday night the special teams units struggled with playing clean. That’s got to be fixed.