By Alex Kozora
Brief player-by-player of how each of the Pittsburgh Steelers on the offensive side of the ball throughout training camp and the first preseason game.
Ben Roethlisberger: Not that we were going to learn much more about him but it was another strong camp. A completion percentage that closed in on 70%, Roethlisberger made multiple “big time” throws throughout camp. And perhaps I’m seeing things, but his deep ball – an area I’ve judged him to be just ok in previously – looked better. With him continuing to be a leader and mentor, Roethlisberger is doing nothing that would dissuade someone from thinking he’ll have another huge year.
Bruce Gradkowski: It was just an alright camp for Gradkowski. He lost some reps to Landry Jones as the team attempts to explore what they have in him compared to the more known commodity in Gradkowski. Still, bad reps were far and few between for him, even if nothing really ever stuck out, sans the 85 yard touchdown in the final practice.
Landry Jones: Here’s where it starts to get interesting. Jones had a borderline brutal start to camp, consistently holding onto the ball so long. Twice in the first half of camp, the coaches blew the whistle after Jones held onto the ball for what felt like forever.
But starting with Saturday’s game, things began to turn around. When facing a live rush, he exhibited the ability to climb the pocket to avoid pressure. His throws showed touch and velocity. The late game throw to Derek Moye was NFL level, even if it fell incomplete.
However, there are still plenty of moments of frustration with him. The fact that he is just in his second year shouldn’t be ignored, but he’s missed some gimmie throws in-game and during practice. A checkdown to Miguel Maysonet was well behind against the New York Giants, he overshot a swing pass to Dri Archer and missed Martavis Bryant on a wide open nine route in practice. Those types of mistakes simply can’t happen with a player who wants to earn a coaches’ trust to play meaningful snaps.
Jury is still out on him. These last three games will be telling. I want to see Jones get a ton of snaps.
Brendon Kay: He didn’t get to play a snap in last Saturday’s game so we can only judge him based off of practice. And comparatively, his reps were limited, usually working the last three plays of each 11 on 11. He only had 53 attempts in practice, 22 fewer than the next closest. Most of what he has done has been nondescript although there were a couple higher-level throws on this past Monday and Tuesday. But he’s still going to be cut. Perhaps the team keeps him through the first wave of cuts in order to let him get some action in the final preseason game.
Le’Veon Bell: I’m not one that is good at noticing if players have gained or dropped weight, but it seems obvious – and Bell has stated as much – that he’s shed a few pounds. Still plenty of big at 225, he looks a tick quicker. Although he missed a good portion of team drills throughout camp, and I’d be surprised if he suited up today considering he hasn’t been in a team drill all week, he showed a burst with the carries he got. He is the obvious choice for the top third down back on this team, and there’s no one else on this roster that has the combination of being able to block and catch. Bell has to make sure he stays off the trainer’s table, but provided he does that, he’s prime to have a nice year. That 3.5 YPC is surely to rocket up.
LeGarrette Blount: He quietly had one of the better camps of anyone on this offense. I saw the quick feet he had to find the hole. He couples that with a one-cut, downhill style you’d expect out of a guy with his size. I also saw some more power to his game than I anticipated seeing based off the Patriots’ tape I watched.
The downside with him are a pair of stone hands. Not an ideal third down back.
Although my pre-camp notion of him possible being a kick returner option has been squashed, he worked as the first team upback on kick returns Thursday. Let’s see if he gets a look there tonight.
Dri Archer: We know he’s fast and dynamic in space. He’s the player who won’t get more than 6-7 touches a game but every NFL fan will know who he is well before the season concludes. The kind of guy that will be shown on every highlight reel.
In one practice, he did show some moxie between the tackles but let’s see what happens in-game. So far, he only has two carries under his belt with both coming on end of the half draws.
The rookie has worked with the running backs the majority of the time but I’m beginning to think the Steelers will still use him more like a wide receiver. Think elongated running game with him: swing passes, angle routes, bubble screens. High percentage throws that place him in space.
He did suffer a few drops and his blocking looks to be non-existent. That’s still one concern I still harbor. He won’t have to block that often but he needs to show some willingness and competency to do it.
Tauren Poole: Been up and down with him throughout camp. He was just another body as the team started but began to separate himself as the #4 back, consistently acting as the next man up behind Bell, Blount, and Archer. Against the Giants, he showed special team value as the second-team upback on punts and first-team upback on kick returns, spending the entire game as the latter. He did have his share of issues as a runner, though.
And that might have been the reason why Josh Harris began to get looks over him in Monday and Tuesday’s practice. By Thursday, it appeared Poole has back ahead, but his chances of cracking this team seem slimmer. Especially if Blount does run as the upback tonight. Poole’s roster spot is up in the air.
Jordan Hall: The undersized back somehow led the team in carries throughout camp with 44. While he occasionally flashed a decent run, including once in full contact against the Bills, there isn’t much to write about him. He does a little as a runner, as a receiver, and returner, but isn’t great – or even good – anywhere. The local kid is a nice story but he doesn’t pose any threat to making this roster. Practice squad at best and even those odds feel faint.
Josh Harris: Harris was signed mid-way through camp and has flashed just enough to warrant a discussion of earning a hat on the practice squad. He’s well-built and has some explosion in his game. But he’s a guy who doesn’t do anything in the return game or anywhere else on special teams. The likely decision, 53 or practice squad, will come down to Poole vs Harris and I still see Poole as a favorite.
Miguel Maysonet: I took a stab by putting him on my practice squad before camp opened but that idea was quickly erased. He’s had some issues with ball security and that appears to have knocked him down in the pecking order, running as the #7 back. Will be an easy cut, something I’m sure Maysonet is used to in his pink-slip riddled career.
Stephon Houston: He was signed on August 13th and participated in team drills just an hour or two after meeting Mike Tomlin. He generated some buzz based off his measurable and production at Indiana, but at this point, he seemed to be signed due to some health issues at the position. Won’t see more than 2-3 carries tonight and it’s unlikely he’ll be able to make them count behind a third team line.
Heath Miller: Heath has been Heath. I still believe his decline will be evident considering tight ends, especially ones that weren’t athletic to begin with, don’t age well. But he’s a good run blocker who technical soundness makes up for any ability that he may have lost. No one sets their hips in the run game better than 83. The catches will still be there too, even if the YPC won’t be anything pretty.
Matt Spaeth: Similar to Miller minus the catches. Excellent run blocker. I’ve said it before but this team should find success running out of 12 personnel in 2014. Imagine Power O with DeCastro to Spaeth’s side? Could result in some big runs.
Will Johnson: Since he did work with the tight ends in drills, I’ll squeeze him in here. Johnson had a nice start to camp, getting numerous looks while being lined up all over the place. But he fell back to Earth at about the half-way point, dropping a couple passes while dealing with some nagging injuries. Still excited about him to a degree – his versatility is a major plus. Should catch at least 15 passes this year. Maybe as many as 25.
David Paulson: As much as it hurts to say, Paulson has the edge on the #3 tight end role. He’s the one tight end of the bottom half that have made plays in camp. He is the only tight end, Miller and Spaeth included, to participate in every practice. He also offers some special teams value on the field goal unit and possibly on kick returns.
Michael Palmer: Not a lot to say about 82, who has dealt with an ankle injury. After playing in team drills Thursday, he should be good to suit up tonight though. Perhaps he boots Paulson off the roster because he is a better blocker, and that’s the main attribute needed in a #3 TE, but he could just as easily get cut and no one would miss him.
Rob Blanchflower: Bit of a disappointment, even if it isn’t all his fault. A high ankle sprain dogged him, even after he returned to practice. Although he caught all six passes thrown his way in the 11 practices I got my stats from, there was nothing special to them. Checkdowns or passes to the flat. We’re no longer talking about him making the 53. We’re now talking about if he can make the practice squad.
Eric Waters: While he has flashed speed, any box score plays have been few and far between. Even if you include the Bills’ practices, Waters had no more than four catches. A lower back injury caused him to miss a few practices but at least he wasn’t long-term. I know fans want someone like Waters to emerge and make the roster but a battle between Blanchflower for the practice squad appears more likely as we stand today.
Bryce Davis: Even though he is now in the mix to long snap, I’ll include him with the tight ends because that’s where he spent most of his time in camp with. Aside from maybe one long completion and getting lit up by Shamarko Thomas on another occasion, there wasn’t much to talk about. Don’t bank on him being the long snapper Week One, either.
Antonio Brown: Brown had a superb camp, showing off quickness that allows him to get separation and do damage after the catch. Though it was rare, the Steelers did place him in the slot a few times. I hope to see that a little more often in 2014. He just needs to stop picking fights.
Markus Wheaton: A player who I was skeptical of coming into camp has made me eat crow. Wheaton showed fantastic body control to make difficult catches and definitely has the quicks and agility like advertised coming out of college. Playing fast and looks to be comfortable in the offense. First time he’s really been healthy and has been able to practice in full in an entire year. That’s huge.
Lance Moore: He isn’t going to wow anyone this year but unlike a guy like Martavis Bryant, he’s consistent, a hard-worker, and that makes him reliable. Still think playing with Drew Brees under a dome helped him out, but he should be an adequate replacement for Jerricho Cotchery as a receiver. As a blocker though, it’s a downgrade. Disappointed the team hasn’t lined him up outside more than a handful of times, too.
Justin Brown: While he didn’t blow anyone away after a couple nice practices in shorts, he certainly didn’t do anything wrong either. Another guy with good body control and the catch radius to make a play on most targets. He lined up in the slot and on the outside while offering punt return ability should the team need him in a pinch. No clue what his stat line will look like in 2014, his playing time is tough to predict, but when he plays, he should produce well enough. Maybe off the box score too. He is arguably the team’s best blocker.
Martavis Bryant: So much we’ve already discussed with the rookie so I won’t write another novel. He’ll still frustrate you but there was a noticeable progression as camp wore on, shedding himself of some of those head-smacking plays. Still, he’s a rookie who had four drops in 11 on 11, and he’s too raw to be trusted. He will contribute this year to a small degree, but don’t go labeling him as the fix to this red zone offense. There could very well be weeks where he is inactive.
Derek Moye: It’s not all his fault but the 41% catch percentage is atrocious. Big body who doesn’t offer much else. Perhaps he finds the practice squad, especially if the team keeps five on the 53 like I expect, but his odds of making the team are slim.
Darrius Heyward-Bey: For a guy I had semi-high hopes for, he dashed them pretty quickly after running with camp bodies to start camp. Shaquille Richardson bonked him on the head, forcing 85 to miss several practices with a concussion. He made a late push on Thursday with a few impressive plays, including an 85 yard touchdown, but probably too little, too late. Let’s see what he does on special teams tonight. It’s his only shot.
CJ Goodwin: An athlete with a nice vertical, he caught just one pass in 11 on 11 before the Bills came to town. Dealt with a left shoulder injury that cost him time he couldn’t afford. The Mel Blount recommendation will likely prove to be the highlight of his NFL career.
Kashif Moore: A guy who I have had a soft spot for due to his quickness and ability to separate, Moore couldn’t hang onto the ball by the end of camp. Began pressing after not playing a snap in last Saturday’s game, and it only hurt him. Practice squad now seems even unlikely.
Lanear Sampson: Love the name, don’t get excited about the play. He was as quiet as a library in camp. Solid bet he is one of the victims to the first cutdown on August 26th.
James Shaw: The Pittsburgh Power product is a fine story and he has some explosion coming out of his routes. Certainly not stiff. But he didn’t catch a pass in team drills and will also be a quick cut.
Kelvin Beachum: After Jarvis Jones beat him up on the first day in pads, Beachum settled down and had a fine camp. Plays with a sound base and can move laterally. A hard-worker who has earned everything he’s been given. Film room junkie by all accounts. The Steelers should be fine at left tackle in 2013.
Marcus Gilbert: Now that he’s healthy, something I’ve preached as his number one issue last year, we’re getting a good feel for the type of player he is. Has shown well in pas protection even if I wish he’d be a little nastier in the run game. The chemistry he shows with David DeCastro picking up stunts also has me excited.
Mike Adams: Out of fairness, we should let the rest of camp play out. And though it’s due to a lack of depth, his roster spot – once briefly debated – should be secured. He might be getting a tiny bit better under Mike Munchak, but I need to see him do well against starting caliber players. Still see a lot of bad habits that are tough to break in his game. Flatback, legs going dead, getting upright in pass protection. All severe issues that you can’t have at tackle. I will say this. The team has gotten a long look at him. Perhaps no one has seen more snaps than Mike Adams in camp.
Guy Whimper: He’s still Guy Whimper and that’s not a compliment the way it was sent to Heath Miller. But his calling card is being able to play four spots. Again, with this team not exactly infused with talent beyond the starting five, it should be enough to earn him a hat. If Whimper gets cut, Mike Adams would be the only backup RT.
Emmanuel McCray: Oh Emmanuel. I don’t want to be mean to you. Truly, I don’t. You’re a rookie getting a chance to live your dream. But that dream will last no more than 12 more days. Just one player who doesn’t look like he belongs at the NFL level. He’ll have nightmares about Arthur Moats and Jason Worilds whipping him in one-on-one. If you’d make a list of Steelers’ one to ninety, McCray would be at the very bottom. Someone has to be.
Ramon Foster: He was never going to be a Pro Bowler but he was always healthy and available. Now, Foster is dealing with a left knee injury. Hopefully it’s minor but it’s fair for us to be a tad bit concerned. When he does return, expect him to be to consistent like usual.
David DeCastro: Here’s a guy playing like someone who wants to make a Pro Bowl. As I said, he’s shown remarkable chemistry with Marcus Gilbert. The team has wised up and have begun to pull him on Power O runs to the left. His first step is a huge asset so that’s a welcome addition to the running game.
Chris Hubbard: Hubbard began camp with some promise and is another player whose weight difference is noticeable. He’s definitely not 280. But he looked slow and lost against the Giants and has recently been usurped by Cody Wallace at LG. I think Saturday’s game was Hubbard’s once chance to make this team. Window of opportunity is sometimes very small and Hubbard might have blown it. Practice squad isn’t even a sure bet.
Bryant Browning: We should at least entertain the idea of Browning making the 53, even if it is a longshot. You could argue he’s played as well as any of the backup offensive lineman. He’s a big body who can surprisingly reach the second level and stick. If he doesn’t land on the 53, he’ll have to find a home in somewhere other than Pittsburgh. As you’ve probably heard by now, he’s out of practice squad eligibility.
Chris Elkins: A center/guard swingman, “Nugget” is your stereotypical undersized yet technically sound lineman. In our brief look against the Giants, Elkins played the best of any of the third string line. Sneaking suspicion he’ll be right in the mix for the practice squad.
Will Simmons: He’s a poor man’s Chris Kemoeatu. Big body who showed the ability to pull in college but a liability in pass protection and ends up on the ground too often in the run game. At 340, Simmons is top heavy and doubles over in the passing game. He’s also strictly been a right guard the entire camp. Not going to make the Steelers playing one spot.
Maurkice Pouncey: Pouncey might have been the player I wrote about the least in my reports. But that isn’t a bad thing. Watching centers in the middle of a play is tough sledding. There’s nothing that tells me he isn’t fully recovered from his torn ACL. Legal issues aside, Pouncey should be fine and an asset in Munchak’s zone blocking scheme.
Cody Wallace: Wallace’s upside is severely limited as a short-term starter. His lack of athleticism doesn’t mesh well in zone blocking. But he can work in a booth and clearly is an intense player who finishes his blocks. If the line shakes out right, he could be the first man up at guard.
Wesley Johnson: You could have listed him at center, left guard, or left tackle, although he has curiously stopped playing left guard in recent practices. The Steelers got a long look at him early in camp playing three spots on the line. But the play hasn’t always matched up with the interest. Want to get a longer look at him beyond the one series he played last Saturday.
To his credit, Johnson has the look of one of the hardest workers on the team. Guy that wants to succeed. We’ll see how far that takes him. Think he does nab a spot on the 53.
Shaun Suisham: Suisham had a miss in the preseason game but there’s no alarm for concern yet. Don’t take for granted of the value of a kicker who missed a field goal in just one game last year.
1. Markus Wheaton
2. Marcus Gilbert
3. LeGarrette Blount
4. David DeCastro
1. Darrius Heyward-Bey
2. Rob Blanchflower
3. Mike Adams
4. Derek Moye