By Jeremy Hritz
Finally, Pittsburgh Steelers football is here, and the evaluation process can now begin of the new offense and players, old and new, who are expected to make contributions during the 2012 season. While the game Thursday evening against the Philadelphia Eagles may have created more questions than certainties, it is important that we remember the performance of the Steelers cannot be viewed through the same lens that we do a regular season game, rather as a practice to see how players respond in different scenarios.
With that said, there are several positives that can be extracted from the first preseason game, yet there are also several areas for improvement that will assuredly be addressed in the remaining practices and games. Below are my observations from last night’s performance worth noting.
Rhythm on Offense
One of the biggest problems with the Bruce Arians led offense was that it lacked any true sense of rhythm, and the offense consistently looked sloppy and chaotic. While the offense was not dynamic or explosive against the Eagles, it appeared structured, synced, and purposeful. The first team’s drive, while far from perfect, was methodical, patient, and time consuming, which if can be carried over into the regular season will make for a fresh defense. The quick, short passes were much more fluid and well-executed than anything ever produced under Arians, which is a cause for optimism. This new addition to the offense and Ben Roethlisberger’s game will open things up down field. Roethlisberger was nearly perfect on the night, only missing on one throw to Emmanuel Sanders. The positive of that throw was that Roethlisberger got rid of the ball quickly.
Isaac Redman’s vision was impressive, especially when cutting back, and while he did not have any huge gains, his runs were strong.
The offensive line did not play well, but it should not be forgotten that the Eagles are a team that is one of the best in the NFL at bringing pressure. David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey played well, while Marcus Gilbert, Mike Adams, and Ramon Foster struggled. Though Adams gave up multiple sacks, he did have some nice blocks, and it is encouraging to see that he went aggressively after the fumbles that the pressure cause. While he should not have given up the sacks, he demonstrated awareness and an unwillingness to quit on the play even though he was beat. It is too early to condemn Adams, and his response on the field to his poor play will say much about what type of player he will be for the Steelers.
Willie Colon needs to get healthy because despite reports that Foster is having an excellent camp, he looked slow and unaggressive.
Gilbert also gave up some pressure on the outside, getting beat for a sack.
Again, there are many encouraging signs here, but there is a long way to go until the final starting unit is pieced together.
Batch showed some explosiveness, yet he was running behind a piecemeal offensive line, leading to an unimpressive average. I’m sure the coaching staff will want to see what he can do with a few carries behind the starters over the next three preseason games.
Rainey put his money where his mouth is, with multiple plays that demonstrated his explosiveness, specifically, a dump off pass for nearly a first down, a draw for a decent gain, and another dump off pass for a brilliant touchdown. By getting Rainey involved early in the offense, the coaching staff made it clear that he will be a contributing factor this year, despite only being a rookie. One thing that did stand out was that his vision seemed to be better when running square with the line of scrimmage, rather than going outside. He does look small in comparison to the other players on the field which raises some concerns about his durability, yet Rainey could be a player whose explosiveness adds another dimension to the offense.
McClendon played powerfully, though a bit high at times, but he looks as if he will be a force on the defense this year. His sack of Michael Vick for a five-yard loss was impressive.
While his interception and return were outstanding, it was what he did prior to the pick that caught my attention. Woods cross-stunted and absolutely lit up #73, Julian Vandervelde. Woods looked powerful, and if he can continue to make similar plays, he may have a decent future with the team (do yourself a favor and go back and re-watch this play).
Carter verified the buzz he has received this offseason and looked quick off of the edge, though he did not collect any sacks. He appeared explosive and powerful, and it will be exciting to see if he develops into an effective outside linebacker for the Steelers.
I am strongly in favor in cutting ties with Shaun Suisham, and while it is early, Hrapmann made a 43 yarder, which would have been the game winner had the defense had made a stop. While it was not the pressure of a regular season game, it was pressure for the rookie, who if he can continue to make kicks like his 43 yarder last night, maybe he can bump Suisham out.
Allen made a nice tackle on Desean Jackson, breaking down nicely and not allowing him to advance from the point of the catch. He looked quick, and definitely outplayed his counterpart Curtis Brown who got beaten badly twice. Allen also had a nice blitz off of the edge that should have resulted in a tackle for a loss, but he was nudged out of the way last second.
Spence was quiet and at times was overpowered. He was knocked off of his feet by a simple chip from a running back, something that he cannot allow to happen.
Return and Coverage Teams
Outside of field goal kicks, the return and coverage teams were average and must be addressed before the start of the season. The Steelers have had issues here before, and they must work to ensure that they are not giving up field position and playing an uphill battle on defense as the result of big returns.
Sylvester whiffed on a tackle in the second quarter, trying to bring down Dion Lewis as he came in too high. If he had made the play, it would have been for a loss, or at least no gain. Later, he did get decent pressure in a blitz up the middle and had a nice tackle behind the line of scrimmage.