Preseason games don’t matter.
Until you win them, and then you’re able to extrapolate deep philosophical significance, far reaching personnel perspectives, and forecast with absolute certainty an undefeated regular season.
The Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t overly impressive with their 20-12 victory over the New York Giants. Considering they got out-yardaged by the Giants by a count of 226-242, it certainly wasn’t a dominating performance by any measure.
However; it was significant in many ways, both deep and philosophical, as it might just indicate the team is once again channeling its championship ways.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t clear losers in this game. Take the National Football League, for example, who pulled a “Heidi” by shifting away its live telecast of the Steelers and Giants in the middle of the third quarter for a…gasp…San Francisco 49ers game. Are the 49’ers still in the league, or did they get relegated to second division?
So what profound observations did we squeeze out of the opening drive of the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers season? Let’s take ‘er on a Spin and find out:
If you’ve been one of the three or four poor souls out who have regularly endured my column the past few years, you’ll know the Spin has been an ardent critic of Coach Mike Tomlin’s seemingly lackadaisical approach to preseason games. It’s always seemed like he treated these games like a five-year-old might deal with spinach. If no one was looking, he’d just as soon dump it in the trash. As a result, the Steelers have looked sloppy and appeared poorly coached in the preseason, and the sidelines looked more like Comedy Central than a team seriously trying to sharpen iron against iron. But, this Giants game had a totally different feel to it. The Steelers, considering it was their first rodeo this year, looked sharp and disciplined. This is especially true since they featured mostly a parade of youth. Pittsburgh has struggled in the recent past with the first halves of regular seasons, and if this preseason match is any indication, they look ahead of schedule in 2017. The Steelers weren’t perfect. But…they looked pleasantly…different.
TWOS AND THE THREES
One of the measures of great teams is when their backups, and their backups’ backups, are able to fill in for the “Ones” without the team missing too many beats. In the last few years, the Steelers “Twos” and “Threes” have been grossly manhandled in the preseason by their opponents. There have been times when the backups, especially on defense, have been run up and down the field like they were the Washington Generals. This wasn’t the case against the Giants. This team looks deeper than it has in many years, which is not only good news for 2017, but for perhaps a few dynastic seasons ahead.
EYES OF THE PILOT
I have a friend whose father was a small plane pilot. In fact, rumor has it he might have been one of those fly low beneath-the-radar types who took occasional jaunts back and forth across the Texas border. I asked my friend if he was fearful of flying with his Dad when he was a kid. His response was quick: “Whenever it got bumpy, I would look over at my father, and as long as there was calm in his eyes, I was good.” Which brings me to what I already love about Joshua Dobbs. After two…well… horrible interceptions that normally would have rattled the iciest-veined rookie into a used pile of slime sold three times on eBay, you couldn’t have detected a hint of a blink in the young eyes of Dobbs. He was calm and collected, and his second half built on the lessons of his first half. Yes, he’s got mobility and a big arm. But it’s the chill in his eyes and the strength of his mind that has the Spin believing that Young Dobbs future is greater than being the team’s third string quarterback.
After all that’s already been written and praised about LB T.J. Watts’ debut performance, it seems redundant to send him any more positive vibes. But heck. Let’s go add some honey on top of the syrup on the pancakes. After years of misadventures in the draft, could this be the year? Could the Steelers have a rookie capable of double digits in sacks? You add this to the late-blooming bud of Bud Dupree and the Steelers might have the edge again at the edge. You add in LB Arthur Moats’ giant statement against the Giants and toss in…oh yes…the Steelers all-time sack leader in James Harrison, and the pressure might just be back in the Steelers defensive cooker.
Speaking of Harrison, several years ago, the Steelers brass had all but declared him washed up on the shores of Cincinnati. As was learned, he had a strong opposing opinion, and demonstrated his point on the field of play. Which is why it’s baffling the team has given DeAngelo Williams such a cold shoulder. No disrespect to the young running backs trying to earn their place on the squad, but didn’t Williams at least deserve a competing slot in camp? Even as an old guy, Williams did the impossible in filling the big shoes of Le’Veon Bell when the superstar was serving NFL timeouts or was sitting in an ice bath. I can’t remember Williams ever having a bad game or sporting a bad attitude. With all that’s going on with Bell, and his history of injuries, the Spin would feel a lot more confident if the Steelers were giving Williams an opportunity to show he has a little more octane left in the tank.
After the many years of suffering, it seems strange to say this, but the Steelers defensive line is both highly talented and quite deep. Of course, it was magical to see the team’s defensive leader, DE Cameron Heyward, back on the field and burning out the cylinders of his motor as usual. Both DE Stephon Tuitt and DT Javon Hargrave have equal odds with Heyward in becoming the team’s top defensive lineman by the end of the year. But, what was impressive, was when the next line of defense came in with DE Tyson Alualu, DE L.T. Walton and DE Johnny Maxey. They performed as interchangeable and well-choreographed parts, allowing the Steelers to effectively operate primarily out of their base 3-4. That being said, it was criminal that DT Daniel McCullers only got about half of the fourth quarter to express himself. There seems to be a real mob mentality in Steelers Nation with McCullers now where people seem to want to chase him out of town with pitchforks and flaming torches. By my count, in the limited snaps that McCullers received, he had three quarterback pressures, and two of them came with him being double-teamed. He did what he does, which is to demand and collapse multiple blockers. It may be time to realize that he’s just not Defensive Line Coach John Mitchell’s “type of guy”, but those that continue to typecast him as “soft” or untalented aren’t watching tape with an honest eye. Certainly other teams will be.
RETURN TO MEDIOCRITY
Another year has passed and still the Steelers seem to have no real threat handling kickoff returns. Why does it seem like every season the Steelers are just “trying out” players back there as if they are spaghetti tossed on the ceiling? How many years should it take to acquire someone who will cause at least a few beads of sweat on an opposing Special Teams coach’s forehead? Despite rule changes, games, and even championships are still won and lost on Special Teams. Hopefully, one of those strands of spaghetti finally sticks. Unfortunately, none of them has yet to stick out.
THE JERSEY MERCHANT
Rookie running back James Conner boasts the number one selling jersey in the NFL. It was disappointing not to get to see him on the field last weekend but he, along with the returning Prodigal Son, WR Martavis Bryant, will be the main attraction in the upcoming game versus the Atlanta Falcons. It seems like Conner’s story…amazing as it already is…is just beginning to unfold.
WHO CARES ABOUT WINNING?
Again. No. Technically the preseason doesn’t really matter. In September the reset button is hit and all teams begin the real games with a record of 0-0. So, it’s not about winning in the preseason. But it is ALWAYS about playing winning football. The 2017 preseason is off to an encouraging start. Let’s hope the Falcons game keeps the rising hopes of Steelers Nation in full flight.