It certainly wasn’t pretty, due to the lengthy rain delay and the general sloppiness that comes with preseason football, but the Pittsburgh Steelers found a way Saturday night at Heinz Field, taking down the Kansas City Chiefs 17-7 to move to 2-0 in preseason play.
Overall, the offense looked a bit clunky at times, especially up front, while the defense flew all over the field against the prolific Chiefs offensive attack, forcing three turnovers on the night.
As always, keep in mind that it’s hard to see everything in the preseason with all the changing parts, and the general uncertainly with preseason telecasts. I was stuck with the Chiefs TV crew and camera angles, so bear with me.
Here we go.
QB — C+
The Steelers gave Mason Rudolph an extended look as the starting quarterback, and quite frankly, the second-year quarterback out of Oklahoma State looked pretty darn good.
Rudolph showed a ton of poise in the pocket and really stepped into his throws, firing strikes during his time on the field. While he finished with just 77 yards passing on 10 completions in 15 attempts, I saw a very confident, comfortable Rudolph simply firing away. That’s great to see.
Josh Dobbs came in to relieve Rudolph and again was scattershot. He led the Steelers in passing yards with 95 on 6-for-11 passing, but he threw some ugly footballs, including a lazy, back-footed throw in the red zone that sailed high and behind his target, leading to an interception.
Dobbs did make some magic happen with his feet, including converting on third and short by escaping a sack, stepping out of one tackle in the open field, and spinning through a third to convert, but his passing just isn’t where it needs to be at this point in his career.
Devlin Hodges received some burn as well late in the game and fired a 24-yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson to put the Steelers up by two scores. Hodges throw was a bit short and inside, but he put it where Johnson was the only one to realistically make a play on it.
RB – B+
James Conner made his first appearance in the preseason and looked explosive, racking up 28 yards on 6 carries. Conner showed some open-field burst around the corner, much like he did last year, and ran hard between the tackles. He certainly wasn’t treating this like a dress rehearsal, and that seemed to carry over to the rest of the running backs on the roster.
Jaylen Samuels looks svelte and slippery heading into the 2019 regular season. He continues to be a problem for defenders between the tackles, in terms of forcing misses, and showed some open-field explosion to turn the corner quickly on his 14-yard touchdown run around left end to open the scoring.
Benny Snell Jr. very clearly showed what his role can be this year, winning numerous times on Saturday night in short-yardage situations with power and elusiveness. I love the way he fires downhill with the ball in those situations, but has the awareness to pick through the pile with patience as well.
I finally got to see Malik Williams get a few carries, and boy was I excited about what I saw. Williams has shown in camp that he’s a physical specimen with some serious explosion, and I saw that right away on his first few runs, forcing defenders to miss in a phone booth. I’d like to see him get some more burn in Week 3 because I definitely think the RB4 job is open, should the Steelers keep four.
WR — B-
James Washington continues to really, really impress this preseason. For the second week in a row Washington made a big play down the field, hooking up with Dobbs again for a 40-yard strike with the Steelers pinned deep. Dobbs underthrew this ball as well, but it’s great to see Washington winning vertically consistently.
Donte Moncrief fumbled away the football on his only catch, giving the ball right back to Kansas City. The ball was just wrestled away from him, so I wonder if that injured finger affected him at all in that scrum.
Johnson looked pretty darn good in his NFL debut. He got in and out of his breaks quickly and cleanly, which he showed on tape at Toledo, and really flashed down the field, making a great catch on his 24-yard touchdown. His touchdown that was wiped out due to offensive pass interference was hilariously awful. If that’s the way the league is going to call PI this year…the game is in trouble.
Eli Rogers and Ryan Switzer received some playing time, but right now it looks like Rogers is well ahead of Switzer. Rogers made a few nice plays down the field, including a tough 25-yard catch over the middle in which he took a big shot from Daniel Sorenson. Switzer seems relegated to crossing routes at this point, which isn’t encouraging for him.
TE — C-
Vance McDonald fumbled the football on his first catch of the preseason. Thankfully, the ball skidded out of bounds, but it’s not good to see the starting tight end put the ball on the deck like that.
Xavier Grimble really hurt himself with a huge drop across the middle of the field on a strike from Rudolph. It looked like Grimble heard footsteps and/or was afraid of contact there. Fortunately for X-man, he made up for the drop with a great pin down block on Samuels’ 14-yard touchdown run, sealing off the left end to allow Matt Feiler to scoot around and take out the second level defenders.
Kevin Rader pretty much has played himself off the team at this point. He had a really bad holding call on a 4th and short conversion by Snell, which gives him two key mistakes offensively. He did have two catches for 20 yards in the win, but it’s really not looking good for him.
OL — B
The offensive linemen up front allowed just one sack and three quarterback hits on the night on 31 drop backs and helped the Steelers rush for 4.0 yards per carry, but it wasn’t a great night overall.
I’m really disappointed with Chukwuma Okorafor so far this preseason. He’s really struggled on both sides of the line, including Saturday night’s performance against the Chiefs while playing right tackle with the starting unit. Okorafor gave up the lone sack of the night on a speed rush by Alex Okafor. It looked like Okorafor was expecting a power rush and had a short set, but Okafor used a speed rush to the outside, won the hand battle with a club and swipe, and got around the edge to sack Rudolph.
I liked Feiler’s work at right guard with the starting unit, including his impressive pull to the left on Samuels’ touchdown in which he cleared the second level and allowed Samuels to walk in untouched.
Patrick Morris seems to play much better in games than in practice. He looked really solid at center and plays with a good motor.
Zach Banner and Fred Johnson showed off some position versatility Saturday night. Banner looked solid at left tackle after playing right tackle in Week 1. He was called for holding once, but looked strong protecting the blind side and collapsed the right side of the defense a few times on running plays. I believe I saw Johnson get a few series at left guard, and he continues to just be a mauler in the run game. I think these two can definitely make the 53-man roster as backups at both positions.
DL — C
The starting unit of Cam Heyward, Javon Hargrave, and Stephon Tuitt looked a bit sloppy early on defending the run. At least from first viewing it seemed like they either got too far up the field against the Chiefs’ running game, leaving big lanes, or they just got pushed out of the way too easily at times.
The reserves didn’t seem to do much better, although Henry Mondeaux continues to grow on me. He plays with his hair on fire and consistently seems to be around the football quite a bit.
I liked what I saw from Tyson Alualu and Isaiah Buggs again. Buggs had two run stops and Alualu had a sack that was wiped out due to penalty. These two appear set in stone for the backup defensive end spots.
LB — A-
The starting outside linebacker duo of TJ Watt and Bud Dupree had a fantastic night.
Watt was a handful for Mitchell Schwartz in limited action, turning the corner a few times to put heat on Patrick Mahomes and Chad Henne, while Dupree recorded two sacks and three quarterback hits on the night, facing off with Eric Fisher for the most part.
Dupree looked explosive and powerful off the edge, which is a great sign. If he can stay healthy, I really believe a big year is in store. It’s pretty clear the ability is there.
Tuzar Skipper continues to impress me as well, both as a pass rusher and a run defender. With his long arms and explosiveness out of his stance, Skipper can be a real threat off the edge. He plays with power and discipline against the run too. I wouldn’t write him off from making the team.
Inside, Tyler Matakevich and Tegray Scales looked really good for the second week in a row. Matakevich led the team in tackles with seven on the night and was seemingly everywhere in the first half, which Scales flew all over the field in the second half. Scales finished with one tackle and a fumble recovery, but it felt like he was in the mix on every snap in the second half.
After a breakout performance in Week 1, Ulysses Gilbert III was a bit quiet in the Week 2, but still finished with four tackles, continuing his push for a roster spot.
DB — A
Now that’s the type of performance I want to see from the Steelers’ secondary every week.
Sure, they didn’t see much of Mahomes or the rest of the Chiefs’ firepower, but guys like Mike Hilton, Sean Davis, Cam Sutton, Artie Burns, and Terrell Edmunds had really good games.
Hilton was a menace when he was on the field. The diminutive slot corner forced a fumble, broke up three passes, laid a couple of big hits, and was just about everywhere on the field throughout the night. That’s what this defense missed last year was a healthy, confident Hilton. The only negative play Hilton seemed to have was allowing Mecole Hardman to slip behind him up the seam for a touchdown. It looked like Hilton had his eyes locked into the backfield and lost a feel for Hardman.
Edmunds and Burns combined to force a fumble on Carlos Hyde in the first half, which helped play in Burns playing with serious confidence. He looked very good in coverage, broke up a pass, and played really loose.
Cam Sutton and Sean Davis had a couple of big hits to really set the tone of the Steelers defense on the night.
In the second half, I loved what I saw from Marcus Allen. For some reason he doesn’t seem to be getting a serious look, but I think he’s a much better player than Jordan Dangerfield, for what that’s worth. Allen recorded 5 tackles in the fourth quarter, including one on special teams. He flew all over the field and was a sound tackler.
PJ Locke, on the other hand, was a mess. Locke looked for the kill shot every time and had a least two missed tackles in the fourth quarter because he came in out of control and flat-out whiffed in the open field.
The same goes for Brian Allen. He’s trying desperately to make the team and wants to make the big play, but he’s losing discipline in key situations and is getting burned for it, especially in the missed tackles department.
Justin Layne quietly bounced back in Week 2. He started off slow, failing to get his head around in time on the left sideline on a shot downfield. Fortunately the pass fell incomplete. After that, Layne broke up a pass late in the game and assisted on a special teams tackle that he somehow didn’t get credit for.
Special Teams – A-
Jordan Berry has the punter’s job locked up, full stop.
Steelers fans might not be happy to read that, but he’s outplaying Ian Berryman with ease. Saturday night was a great performance for Berry, who averaged nearly 46 yards a punt and put the ball pretty much wherever he wanted to on the night, allowing his coverage unit plenty of time to get down the field.
Berryman did drop one inside the 20-yard line, pinning the Chiefs back, but he’s pretty much got no chance to make the team at this point. That’s how well Berry is playing.
Matthew Wright connected on a 46-yard field goal, but you can just see the difference in leg power on field goals with Wright and Chris Boswell, who attempted both extra points on the night.
Wright’s 46-yarder seemed to take forever to reach the back of the net, whereas Boswell’s kicks come off like a rocket.
Coverage units were very good for the Steelers on the night. Snell had a huge tackle on a punt early in the game, while Marcus Allen, Matakevich, and Robert Spillane looked really good getting down the field to make stops in kicking/punting situations.
The real issue with special teams right now is the kick return game, where Johnny Holton is really struggling to get anything going in that department. He looks really hesitant at times, but that being said it’s not like he has a ton of time and space to make anything happen. Danny Smith needs to figure out how to correct the kick return issues.
Punt returning doesn’t seem to be an issue though, at least for Diontae Spencer. For the second week in a row, the former CFL star busted off a long punt return, this time weaving his way down the left sideline for 38 yards. Spencer showed off his elusiveness and open field homerun speed again on punt returns. I think he’s quietly making a play for a roster spot. He’s had a solid preseason so far.
Diontae Johnson probably shouldn’t be returning punts anytime soon though. Johnson returned just 17 punts in college and looked like he was too anxious to make a big splash play on Saturday night in that department, returning three punts for just 11 yards while being hit almost immediately on two of them. He even muffed one of them, but was fortunate enough to jump on it.