Exhibition Opener – NY Giants
It’s often said the pre-season is meaningless, the NFL even tried to reduce the amount of games. But when you have super winning coaches like Mike Tomlin and Tom Coughlin competing against one another, every play counts. Overall not a great performance, even by first game standards, however there were some good things to take from it, and some very bad things as well. The Steelers offense was clearly trying to work on the running game, and given the new configuration of the offensive line running the ball was a wise plan of attack, especially facing a stout defense like the Giants. Second round draft pick Le’Veon Bell did not start due to an leg injury, which opened the door for newly signed Lerod Stevens-Howlings who acquitted himself well and looks to be someone who will fill a key roll for the team, assuming he is not cut. His name doesn’t necessarily roll of the tongue, but while wearing #34 it won’t bring back memories of Rashard Mendenhall. The first team offense didn’t put much emphasis on throwing the ball and will have to dedicate some time on improving the pass blocking, Big Ben finished his two series 4 of 8 for 36 yards, including a batted pass and a sack on 3 and 16. There’s certainly no cause for panic after game one, but the one glowing area for concern is the tight end position. With pro bowler Heath Miller out for an indeterminate amount of time, it so far is not looking as if incumbent David Paulson will be able to adequately fill his shoes, especially with his blocking chores.
Year after year the Steelers first team defense takes the field on opening day and seems to be right in stride, taking the field after a blocked punt which landed on the five yard line, the Steelers were respectfully able to hold Eli Manning’s offense to a field goal. With keys plays by Lawrence Timmons and Ike Taylor, it certainly looked like the defensive stand we’ve come to expect from this unit. That is until the second possession by the Giants, Ryan Clark whiffed on a open field tackle after a screen pass allowing a twenty five yard gain. Then it was Manning’s chance to do what he does best, which is to launch a 57 yard touchdown strike to Victor Cruz. Newly re-signed William Gay got burnt on the play, bringing back bad memories of Super Bowl 45, and our top safeties Troy Polomalu and Ryan Clark were too slow to react. Certainly not a good sign after hearing Warren Sapp continually talk of how old and slow the defense is, but those are things that will happen when you face a two time Super Bowl MVP and one of the leagues most explosive receivers. So again, too soon to panic, as long as everyone stays healthy the number one defense from a year ago should be just fine.
Rookies – Back-Ups – Highlights
There were some positive aspects to the rookie performances in the game, particularly from wide receiver Markus Wheaton. The talk in camp has been glowing about this kid, and he certainly made a case for himself, with one exception. Wheaton displayed the speed and instincts that we hoped for, he has good hands and made a very dynamic catch on the sideline. It was a late throw from QB Bruce Gradkowski, Markus extended himself and made the catch while dragging his feet, showing great field awareness and concentration. The play however was called back after the replay challenge showed he bobbled the ball when he hit the ground, still a very impressive effort from Wheaton, I expect he will be a dynamic player for us during the regular season. He also showed his speed and running ability on and end around, his speed and innate abilities should serve as a more than sufficient replacement for Mike Wallace. There was one major blunder by the rookie though, which could be quite costly. While on special teams and going down on punt coverage, back up linebacker Stevenson Sylvester made a great tackle and was starting to get up, then here comes Wheaton flying in over the play, cutting Sylvester right at the knees. Sylvester hobbled off the field and did not return, it is one thing when teammates collide and an injury results, but something so blatantly stupid should not happen. Let’s hope Syvester is not seriously injured, we need all the back ups we can get.
First round pick Jarvis Jones had a good overall evening, including a fumble recovery and a shoe-string tackle on a third down sweep play. One thing I like was his poise, he seemed focused and made no attempt to over react, over pursue, or do more than he knews he was capable of doing. Another thing I liked about the underclassmen, no one was pounding their chest or preening after making plays, they were all about business. Jones has a good amount of learning ahead of him, and the speed of the game seems to be something he will need to adjust to. But he has good field presence, an understanding of his role, and a good amount of natural athleticism. He will however have to adopt the Steeler way, and by that I mean the toughness and go for the throat attitude that goes along with being a Steelers linebacker. We all remember greats like Jack Lambert, Greg Lloyd, James Harrison, James Farrior, etc., they all had that kill or bill killed attitude, but I fully expect Jarvis will be fine.
There is a definite amount of work to be done regarding the back ups and rookies, particularly in the area of special teams. A blocked punt, a punt bouncing off the receivers helmet, poor judgement when catching the ball deep in our territory, bad judgement when calling for a fair catch. Special teams have killed this team throughout history, from Roy Gerela missing field goals in the Super Bowl, to special teams blunders in championship games against the Patriots, 2001. Special teams can make or break the result of a game, and this current unit needs to step up and be far more proficient than what we saw in tonight’s performance. But of course no need to panic, we should definitely count on better results in next weeks game. Other notable performances tonight came from second year defense tackle Al Woods #65, we will need him this year to help support our defensive line, to be an impact player much in the same way Chris Hoke was. Cornerback Isaiah Green #39, looked good in pass protection, finding his way to the ball on several plays and making nice open field tackles. Vinnie Williams #44 (he’ll need to change that number for the regular season), also looks as if he is being groomed to take over the middle linebacker position in the long term. Vinnie was a dynamic player in college, he is a guy who I have my eye on, we will certainly need for him to develop into a sound inside backer as time goes on. Another player who is showing early signs of promise is wide receiver Justin Brown, he showed good route running ability and an eagerness to go up for the ball, unfortunately at the risk of falling flat on his back, literally. Look for Justin to make plays in future games, another position we need sound depth at, particularly with the season ending injury to Plaxico Burress.
My expectation for game one of the pre-season is always to simply see what level of work has been accomplished to this point in training camp, you would also like to see some level of continuity in the first team, offensive and defense. I do however feel a strong sense of concern with where the tight end position is currently sitting. I certainly wouldn’t expect that anyone could be plugged into Heath Millers position and perform at the same level, but given the importance of the tight end position with respect to blocking and protecting Big Ben, it does seem a tad on the shaky side. There are plenty of bodies in the backfield that are capable of catching passes and running crossing routes, but it’s no mystery to anyone that the success of the 2013 season hinges largely on keeping our QB upright and healthy across a sixteen game stretch, and hopefully more.