By Matthew Marczi
The Pittsburgh Steelers are looking to close out their preseason schedule on a positive note with a win after losing their first three games, but more importantly, they are looking for clarity at a number of positions at the bottom of the roster. Below is a recap of the first half of the final preseason game against the Carolina Panthers.
The Steelers won the coin toss, but deferred, choosing to put their defense on the field to start the game. Cam Newton did not start for the Panthers. Derek Anderson came out under center after Shaun Suisham put the opening kickoff through the back of the end zone.
Brett Keisel did not play; in his place was Cameron Heyward, who could stand to get the work to get more tape out there. Brian Rolle and Marshall McFadden were the inside linebackers, and Curtis Brown was the starting right corner. DaMon Cromartie-Smith and and Robert Golden were at safety. Chris Carter started in place of LaMarr Woodley.
The Panthers had good success moving through the air on the first drive, taking large chunks of yardage at a time. The drive culminated in Brown being beaten for a 35-yard touchdown. Not a good sign at all about his chances of contributing on defense this year, but he will continue to be an essential cog to the special teams unit.
Felix Jones received the ensuing kickoff deep, but took a knee. Landry Jones came out to start, meaning he will likely play the entire game. The starting offensive line was intact, but Markus Wheaton and Jerricho Cotchery started at receiver. On the first play, Wheaton had a pass go through his hands, but a roughing the passer penalty gave the Steelers a first down. On the next play, Jones ran a bootleg and found Wheaton for a nice catch and run for a first down near midfield.
The Steelers then ran an end-around with Reggie Dunn, who with the help of Will Johnson got enough for another first down. Justin Brown came in in the slot on the next play, which was a handoff to Jonathan Dwyer, but Mike Adams was beaten and Dwyer was stopped for a four-yard loss. The next play could have gone for a touchdown for Wheaton if not for a nifty deflection by the Panthers’ safety. A draw play for LaRod Stephens-Howling was run perfectly, including a trap block by Ramon Foster, to convert the first down, however.
On the following play, Dwyer eluded some tacklers in the middle of the field for another first down, down to the 16. Getting the ball again, he seemed to stumble upon a hole, but it closed quickly after three yards. On the next play, Jones found David Paulson in a bit of traffic near the goal line, and he was able to push his way the extra yard or two for the touchdown to match the Panthers’ opening drive.
The same unit came stayed in on defense for the Steelers on the second drive. Cameron Heyward made a nice play on second and short to force third down. Cortez Allen defended the third down pass to force a punt. Justin Brown returned the kick; his first, I believe, of the preseason.
Steelers PR reported Will Johnson would not return with a hamstring injury following the opening drive. The interior shifted on the drive, with Chris Hubbard, John Malecki, and Guy Whimper left to right. The first down pass was deflected away on a nice play, although Jones should have thrown the pass to the inside of the field. Not a well-placed pass given the context. On second down, Paulson was able to get four, setting up third and long. After being flushed, Jones hesitated to attempt to run for the first down and instead threw it away. Shamarko Thomas continued to be in the returner’s face, but again, he allowed a short return when no fair catch was called.
Once again, same personnel on defense. A quick three-and out. Justin Brown was back returning the punt once again, who called for a fair catch when he did not need to.
Joe Long and Kelvin Beachum came in on the third drive to complete the second-team offensive line. Dwyer had a few good carries in a row, but fumbled on the third, recovered quickly by Malecki. Stephens-Howling had no chance on a blitz on the next play for a loss to set up third and long. The Steelers ran a screen for Wheaton that actually got close to first-down yardage thanks in part to blocks by Long and Derek Moye.
Al Woods, Hebron Fangupo and Brian Arnfelt made up the defensive line on the following drive. Brian Rolle forced a fumble on a carry, but the Panthers recovered and actually picked up a first down out of it. On third and six, Cortez Allen was beaten for a first down and a nice chunk of yardage. The next pass was deflected down the field. Anderson took off on the following play to set up third and short, which they converted.
He had a lot of time to find a receiver at the five-yard line to set up first and goal. A carry right up the middle reached the one-yard line, and second down came up just short. There was a whole lot of meat in the middle on third down, including Fangupo and Alameda Ta’amu, and the Panthers did not come close, forcing a field goal.
Markus Wheaton bobbled a pass before reeling it in out of bounds. Felix Jones made a nice cutback on second down for five yards. On third down, Landry Jones did an excellent job of eluding pressure and then placed a perfect pass for Moye just beyond the defender’s reach, which went for a first down and plenty of YAC. Nice job by both players. Two plays later, however, Jones had his pass batted down after Joe Long allowed his man to clog the lane.
Drew Butler pinned the Panthers down on the 12-yard line to start the next drive. Jason Worilds and Cortez Allen remain the only starters in with under seven minutes to play in the first half. Ta’amu now in at nose tackle instead of Fangupo. The defense held on the first two plays, and a holding penalty on third down negated a first down. Unfortunately, Ted Ginn, Jr.—who scored the first touchdown—torched Brown and Cromartie-Smith for a nearly 90-yard touchdown. Brown stopped running after Ginn reached the safeties. It is not entirely clear who had what assignment on the play.
Beachum moved to center for the first time in game action on the next drive. Long moved to left tackle and Whimper moved to right tackle. Moye once again got a nice chunk of yardage on a second down pass for 23 yards. Felix Jones had a nice hole to run through on the next play for another first down. He failed to reel in a dump off pass on the next play, but he had another good run on second down. Beachum was flagged for a false start, making it third and eight, however. On third down, Jones tried to get the ball to Brown, but he had to elevate in front of a defensive back, and it would not have gone for a first down anyway.
Butler downed yet another punt inside the 15; given that he is punting in the second quarter; that suggests that he has won the kicking battle.
Alan Baxter, Kion Wilson, and Vince Williams entered the game on the final drive of the half, as did Shamarko Thomas, Isaiah Green, and Josh Victorian. A quick three and out gave the Steelers a chance to score before the half with 1:45 remaining. Dunn did not have much room to operate on the punt return.
David Paulson caught the first down pass and hurdled a defender. The next play was just out of reach for Stephens-Howling after Jones was under pressure from the left side. Jones looked for Stephens-Howling deep, but the ball was a bit overthrown—otherwise it could have gone for a touchdown. On third and ten, Jones found Paulson right at the first down marker. Justin Brown got six yards on first down, then found Stephens-Howling down to the nine. If Jones could have hit him on the run, he may have gotten a bigger gain. Stephens-Howling walked off to the sidelines with an apparent injury after the play.
On first down, a quick hitter to Wheaton only went for a few yards, but Whimper was flagged for an illegal block in the back anyway. Now from the 19, the Steelers were forced to spike the ball and attempt a field goal, which Suisham hit to bring the halftime score to 17-10.