Keep Hope Alive…, Keep Hope Alive!
The big question going into game three’s match up with the Kansas City Chiefs was, can the offensive line handle their pass blocking responsibilities, and will the fist team offense be able to get into the end zone for the first time. The first team offense responded in grand style, mixing up plays, passing the ball deep, and putting forth a more aggressive effort towards pushing the ball across the goal line. Big Ben finished the night 12 of 18 for 161 yards, one TD. One deep pass was called back due to a dubious cut block penalty called on Jonathan Dwyer, another deep lob that was slightly under thrown to Emanuelle Sanders right at the pylon, was ruled incomplete when Sanders bobbled the ball after it hit the ground when he fell. It was the same play from a week ago when Antoniro was unable to keep his feet in bounce after the catch, Ben is putting the ball in the right spot, it’s up to these receivers to finish off the play, we need for this to work in the regular season.
There were some struggles on the edge with left tackle Mike Adams, his technique is still a work in progress, but there is definite improvement over the last two performances. I will also give him big kudos for staying with his block after his man flushed Ben out of the pocket, he continued to go after his man which allowed Ben a lane to keep the play alive and find Dwyer wide open on the sideline for a walk in touchdown. In addition to the chemistry between our veteran receivers, rookie Markus Wheaton was worked into the first team reps and came through with aplomb. Running crossing routes and various slot position duties, Wheaton is showing he is more than ready to contribute in a big way. Even though there is a big void left by the absence of Heath Miller, this offense should be competitive enough to win games, the upside being the improvement of the line from week to week.
The 2013 version of the Steelers defense seems ready for real time action, of course with some minor tweaks here and there. There’s plenty of upside thus far, specifically with the return of cornerback Cortez Allen, who looked very solid after missing all of camp due to injury, Allen applied good coverage and solid tackles. Additionally, they are not just talking the talk, they are walking the walk. They set out to be a more opportunistic unit with a heavier focus on getting turnovers, so far they have at least one turnover in each game. After a reception on a basic out route by Dwayne Bowe, Lamar Woodley stripped the ball from the receiver which Bowe was able to coral back in, but we’re seeing more attempts to go after the ball while making the tackle. Later in the first half on a running sweep play, Lawrence Timmons made a nice strip near the sideline which Troy Polomalu quickly fell on. Polomalu has been playing like his old self, flying around the field, solid in run support as well as playing tight zone pass coverage. If he stays healthy throughout the year, I see another Pro Bowl season for the veteran. The one down moment came of course when newly re-signed Will Gay got burnt again for a touchdown, so far Gay is giving up one touchdown per game, nice having you back Will.
It’s fair to say the special teams performed better that their first two outings, it’s also fair to say they are still abysmal. There was a flash when Reggie Dunn returned a kick off to mid field, showing a good burst with good cutting ability and vision. But then there that big momentum killer right after a big touchdown play by Markus Wheaton, the Chiefs fielded the kick off at the back of their end zone, the returner proceeded to take it right to the house from one end of the paint to the other, completely untouched. If the defense is playing well through three games, and the offense is making strides, how is it the special teams are continually putting points on the board for the other team? I fully expect special teams coach Danny Smith to be relieved of his duties, and hopefully soon.
It’s looking at this point that the Steelers have had a good draft, several rookies will be game ready and look to contribute in key roles. Linebacker Jarvis Jones has been balling out since he’s stepped onto the field, and getting sharper with each game. He’s got natural athletic ability and great field presence and awareness, he’s not trying to do more than he’s capable of, and it’s clear he’s capable of a lot. Jones is constantly around the ball, he sheds blockers and makes tackles, he’s getting a much better push on his QB pressures as well. He got his opportunity to play a good portion of the first half with the starters, he definitely showed he belongs. There was a play in the late in the third quarter while he was in pass coverage, the pass dinged off the intended receiver and popped into the air like a champagne cork. Jones was right there snaring the ball and instantly heading down field, a stellar play by the rookie from Georgia. Unfortunately Jones was injured after the play, he fell onto the ball which resulted in a chest injury. He was taken to the hospital for a check up after the game, fortunately his test results were negative. I would imagine the Steelers will rest him for the next game, this guy is valuable, Jones is responsible for a turnover in each of his three pre-season games.
The other highlight of the evening came from wide receiver Markus Wheaton, we’re expecting Wheaton to come in as a walk on replacement for the departed Mike Wallace, and thus far he’s giving no impression that he is not up for the task. Wheaton was used as a slot receiver during the first teams initial drives, catching a nicely timed slant route, then hauling in a sideline pass that was brought back due to a questionable cut block call on Jonathan Dwyer. The big play came early in the third during a drive orchestrated by back up QB Bruce Gradkowski. On a designed go route Gradkowski launched a perfect pass right at the goal line, Wheaton beat double coverage and hauled in the ball in stride. What impressed me most about the play was Wheaton while running past the referee gently flipped him he the ball and kept on jogging to the sideline. No chest pounding and excessive celebrating from this years class, get the job done and let ’em know you’ll be back.
The 2013 season will be a tough one for the Steelers, they’re young on offense and unproven, they will also be faced with competing against some of the NFL’s best defenses. Saturday nights performance showed that not only are they making strides in the right direction, they are using the talent they have to their best advantage. We’re also seeing solid performances from veterans like Lawrence Timmons, Troy Polomalu, and Ziggy Hood, to name a few. Now it’s time to make the cuts and get ourselves ready to do battle, Pittsburgh style.