By David Todd
The Steelers lost 24-13 to the Washington Redskins at Fedex Field in D.C. on a Monday night game nationally televised by ESPN. Their preseason record dropped to 0-2 and their performance continued to match the level of play seen during the first three weeks of training camp. Erratic is probably the adjective of choice. After last week’s loss to the Giants Mike Tomlin suggested there was a lot of “Steelers beating Steelers.” There was plenty more of that in D.C.
Similar to last week, many of the players who have stood out or flashed at camp did so again. This is especially true of the rookie draft class. On the flip side, those who have struggled mostly continued to do so. The wheat and the chaff continue to be separated. Unfortunately for Mike Tomlin & Kevin Colbert the team currently looks like it may have a lot of wheat at some positions and a lot of chaff at others.
After sitting out the Steelers first preseason game as a precaution with some discomfort in his left knee, Le’Veon Bell made his much-anticipated professional debut in D.C. He lasted one series before limping to the sidelines with an apparent mid-foot sprain. He is scheduled to have an MRI Tuesday. This is typically not a one week injury. If it’s only a sprain, 3-6 weeks would be the likely prognosis depending on severity. With Isaac Redman and LaRod Stephens-Howling not dressed due to minor injuries the Steelers quickly found themselves short running backs. Baron Batch left with a stinger and Will Johnson with a rib injury, though neither is considered serious. 5th-round pick, corner Terry Hawthorne, getting his first playing time of the preseason, left the game late with cramps/dehydration.
*I’ve said for a couple of weeks Jon Dwyer is a lock to make this team. His solid performance, 68 yards on 14 carries, and Bell’s injury make it official. Even though he is listed down the depth chart, I think the Steelers may well turn to Dwyer as their starting back if Bell is out for and extended period of time. He runs hard, has quick feet and deceptive speed and is most-able to handle the punishment of 20-25 carries/game. His fumble was a blemish on an otherwise solid night.
*Having watched Manny Sanders for three years I’m still not able to discern a difference in talent or work ethic between him and Antonio Brown–and that is not a knock on Brown who has been by far the more productive receiver since both were taken in the 2010 draft. Sanders made two excellent hands catches for 39 yards the only two times he was targeted. Now Kevin Colbert should consider extending Sanders before he puts up what I think will be big numbers (70, 1,000, 6-8) this season.
*The vertical passing game. The Steelers longest completion in week 1 was 14 yards. Monday the Steelers had five completions of 19 yards or more highlighted by Landry Jones’ pretty 45-yard streak to fellow rookie Markus Wheaton. It was by far the best throw from Jones since he was drafted and probably helped ensure his spot on the 53, if he survives the numbers game at tight end and running back.
*Running back Le’Veon Bell lasted one series. While it’s ridiculous to suggest Bell is injury-prone after touching the ball over 400 times last year, his availability for the start of the season is now in question. If the presumptive starting back is on the shelf for some period of time, the team is going to have to adjust its plans accordingly.
*I don’t think it’s over-stating it to say the offensive line was a disaster. It started right from the opening drive. Maurkice Pouncey got schooled by Barry Cofield and Mike Adams drew an illegal formation penalty and followed that up with a holding penalty on a play where he didn’t move his feet or hands. From that auspicious beginning it went downhill. None of the starters played well and the second unit was worse. Guy Whimper was atrocious at guard after being complimented by Mike Tomlin late in the week. Joe Long got his first playing time of the preseason and immediately missed his assignment. Jon Malecki and Chris Hubbard looked over-matched. Kelvin Beachum probably got a passing grade for his pass protection at the left tackle spot. He was the exception. The quarterbacks were under pressure the entire game. The overall performance was bad enough that it has to be red-flagged.
*The short passing game. The Steelers were ineffective with the screen game last week and equally bad this week. Ben Roethlisberger had an early swing pass returned for a touchdown and the linemen’s inability to block effectively, even in a screen game designed to allow penetration, rendered it mostly-useless once again.
*Lamar Woodley got a sack. This is symbolic as much as anything, but the effectiveness of the defense is largely predicated on pressure. Woodley who had a down year last year, looks healthy and ready to go this season.
*Jarvis Jones made another big play. In week one he fell on a fumble. Right guy, right spot. Monday he broke up a play with his quick hands leading to an Ike Taylor fumble recovery. Yes, the Skins blew the blocking assignment. But big plays seem to follow Jones around. His play through the first three weeks has ensured he will see time this year right from the start. He isn’t the starter yet, but a few more big plays and I wouldn’t rule it out.
*Shamarko Thomas showed why the Steelers traded a 2014 pick to get him. I have no idea how Thomas will fit into the Steelers base defense because I haven’t seen him used that way, but he certainly made his presence felt in the nickel Monday night. His big lick on Chris Thompson led to a Steelers fumble recovery and he showed a willingness to stick his nose, and the rest of his body, into the action. He led the team with four tackles and two assists and looked like a Mini-me version of Levon Kirkland out there in the run game.
*UDFA DE Brian Arnfelt continues to make an impression. With Al Woods getting more snaps at NT, Arnfelt has gone from a guy possibly ticketed to the practice squad to one who has an outside shot at the 53.
*The backup linebackers weren’t so much bad as they weren’t noticed. Last week a number of the them, particularly those on the inside, were outstanding and made a big impression. This week none of them stood out. This still looks like the most difficult position to choose from. Marshall McFadden and Bryan Rolle started inside with the second team and along with 6th round pick Vince Williams would appear to have a slight edge. On the outside I’d put Chris Carter ahead of Adrian Robinson. Stevenson Sylvester didn’t dress.
*Last week: “Cam Heyward made no impression. A first-round pick in 2011, Heyward is someone the Steelers need to take a step forward this year… More is expected.” Same holds. Heyward’s name didn’t show up on my radar or the stat sheet.
*Alan Baxter, the early camp phenom, has done very little in the two preseason games. His chance has probably passed him by.
*Reggie Dunn officially announced his candidacy for the 53. He returned one kick for 30 yards and two punts for 37 more. His blazing speed is apparent, but as importantly, he showed good patience and vision. With no 5th receiver separating from the pack Dunn’s chances at a roster spot increased dramatically Monday night.
*Michael Palmer wasn’t with the Steelers two weeks ago but multiple injuries to the tight end positions forced them to look for help. Palmer showed solid ability as an in-line blocker last week and this week he made a couple nice special teams tackles although I’m not sure he was properly credited on the stat sheet. His chances of sticking on the initial 53 have increased considerably as well.
*Last week David Gilreath fumbled on one punt return and made a poor decision on another. This week he dressed but didn’t see the field demonstrating just how few opportunities players get to make an impression.
Last week I wrote, “It’s the preseason, not much to critique here.” That is no longer the case.
*Todd Haley opened up the offense a bit more even though the offensive line made it incredibly difficult for the passing game.
*Not to go into a full blown panic, but Jack Bicknell has a lot of work to do with the offensive line. The zone blocking scheme has been the focus of camp, but if this line can’t pass block it won’t matter what kind of scheme they use in the run game.
Big Officiating Calls:
*Again they generally seemed to get it right.
Up Next: The Steelers return to Heinz Field to take on the Kansas City Chiefs Saturday August 24. Kickoff is 7:30 pm.
Reminder: You can hear me and Tom Bradley on the postgame show on the Steelers Radio Network after every Steelers game. You can listen on the Steeler Gameday app, the Steelers Nation Radio app on iHeart Radio or DVE or 970 ESPN in Pittsburgh. You can hear me weekdays on 970 ESPN from 4-7 pm and you can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.