Steelers Spin: Preseasonal Pontifications


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:

DISCIPLINED APPROACH

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.

WATT’S UP?

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.

AGEISM

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.

LINE DANCING

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.

About the Author

Michael K. Reynolds
Longtime Pittsburgh Steelers fanatic and author of the acclaimed Heirs of Ireland series. MichaelKReynolds.com
  • disqussant_steel

    Preseason wins matter as it can set the psychological tone of the season. Of course you need to balance injury probability. Duh.

  • francesco

    I agree the Steelers looked much sharper than all the previous preseasons.- especially on defense.
    I believe this was caused by the way they fell to NE in the playoffs last year and the ridicule of our soft defense.

  • alevin16

    I am glad the Steelers finally had some spirit in a preseason game. Hopefully they can get out a fast start and avoid the bad team losses. I mean our first game is against the Browns, could you imagine the upheaval in Steelers world if they lose to the Browns? (I am not saying they can’t lose to the Browns, that can still happen). Loved the Washington Federals reference…I miss the USFL

  • cencalsteeler

    My father, too, was a small plane pilot. He calmed our nerves by climbing altitude, and handing us a roll of toilet paper. Nah, it’s not what you’d think, lol. We’d throw the roll out the window and as it would unravel down towards the Earth, he’d make back and forth attempts at cutting the tp with his prop. My job after we’d land was always to clean all the toilet paper that would be draped over the wings from some of his failed prop cuts. Good times!

  • Steel Realist PAul

    I detect some hope in The Spin for 2017.

    Also, totally agree about D. Williams and the RB situation. He would be better than Fitz or Davis IMO, should Bell not be there to start at some point.

  • Alan Tman

    Great article, but the real question is does Tomlin get any credit for these changes? Lol

  • Beaver Falls Hosiery

    I always enjoy your writing Michael. Great read.

    Strongly agree that depth is critical for a deep run. Some unheralded players may be key to winning some games this year. A 19 or 20 game season will force that through attrition. Don’t agree on DeAngelo. He looked like he was out of gas when he came into the last game. He is a warrior and kept himself in shape; but the spring has sprung from his step as happens with running backs on the wrong side of 30.

  • Phil Brenneman II

    Maybe the most underrated and least talked about parts of the offseason…..missing articles from MKR. Good to have you back.

    I think you are spot on when it comes to D Will. He handled the load almost unbelievably well any time Bell was down and people seem so quick to forget that the first time our offense moved down the field and scored vs the Pats in the playoffs was after Bell went down and D Will came in. And the arguments against are easy to counter when you stop and think about it.

    1. D Will is old. D Will was already old when we got him and that didn’t stop him from tearing it up. He has always had a split load if you will, so the wear on him isn’t the same as every 30 something RB in the league.

    2. He is coming off of injury. It seems to me like almost every time we talk about Le’veon Bell we could be saying the same thing as well. If anyone has any questions as to how D Will is feeling after the injury just go watch his wrestling footage. The dude looks as spy as any 20 year old professional wrestler and as or more athletic than most of them to boot. Sure, wrestling isn’t the same is football but it also isn’t just laying on your couch either.

    The arguments for him on the other hand, aren’t so easy to counter. He is a 3 phase back who can run, catch, and block, knows the offense, is a great scorer (go check the stats), and is better than any alternative currently on our roster. I would take D Will at 80% over Toussaint or Davis. Connor is an unknown at this point.

    Unless the Steelers know something we don’t, I think they are complete fools not to have D Will on this roster trying to keep his spot.

  • Beaver Falls Hosiery

    Consider, 31 other teams did not make a move to pick-up DWill when he came available. Need to know when to hold ’em, and when to fold ’em.

  • Phil Brenneman II

    1. 31 other teams include the likes of the Browns who draft players like Johnny Manziel so I am not sure how comfortable you should be defending the Steelers by using the Browns decision making as a standard.

    2. D Will makes more sense for the Steelers because he has been there. He knows the system, knows the guys etc etc…With us it would have been keeping a productive player, for other teams it would be bringing in an over age RB.

    3. As MKR pointed out, Harrison was folded on and look how productive he is been after he surpassed his apparent experation date.

  • Beaver Falls Hosiery

    1. The other 31 teams include the likes of the Patriots that do not hesitate to pick up players that will strengthen their roster.

    2. DWill’s productivity slipped from 2015 to 2016. He went from 4.5 yards a carry to 3.5 yards a carry.

    3. May DWill could rebound. Still time between now and start of season to pick him back up but believe the coaching staff in best positon to evaluate what he has left in the tank.

  • Jaybird

    Did the Steelers really fold on Harrison? Didn’t they offer more money than Cincy? I thought James turned the Steelers down

  • Phil Brenneman II

    Fair point on 1 but I do go back to what I said before about D Will for us vs D Will for other teams. Of all our current backs he is the only one who can replace Bell and be as helpful in every phase. The others have shown some promise blocking or running or some combo but D Will can do those and catch out of the backfield.

    The YPC isn’t really a concern for me. He really only had 3 games as a starter and 1 of the 3 he averaged 5.5. He also added 6 TD’s between running and receiving. Bell only had 9 with way more snaps to his name. Given our redzone struggles give me a guy (even if old) who has a nose for the endzone.

    I tend to trust the Steelers judgement but they also aren’t infallible. What we have behind Bell right now is an injured and unproven rookie and 2 guys fighting for the number 3 role, neither of whom are special. You can make an argument that D Will could still be a decent 1 at his age or at the least a good 2. That is more than we can say for the roster now.

  • Phil Brenneman II

    Good question. I thought they didn’t offer him what he wanted but I don’t remember the specifics.

  • Beaver Falls Hosiery

    I agree that Steelers are not infallible but who better to trust? I like DWillna lot but thought he looked slow in his last game; not the same explosiveness he had in 2015.

  • Phil Brenneman II

    I can’t remember the timing but wasn’t he recently back from injury?

  • Jaybird

    As I get a little older , I find myself doubting my memory more and more, but I’m pretty sure he got less money from Cincy than he would have received from Pittsburgh.

  • I think that’s an excellent point Francesco. Some teams crumble after a loss like that, others rise to the challenge. Let’s hope that is the case, because there were just a few feet short last year.

  • Oh my…that seems terribly unsafe. I’m glad you survived your childhood!

  • I thought I was clearly complementing Tomlin…but I see how it could come across as being wrapped up in an insult. I’m a HUGE Tomlin fan, but I don’t think he’s perfect and needs to earn his job daily and weekly like the rest of us mugs have to do. To be clear now…I’m giving Coach 100% credit for what I saw (and I’m hoping it wasn’t some desert mirage). I was impressed on how in form the team was for their first Preseason game.

  • Thanks Phil…I always enjoy your unique insights.

  • I think both James and the Steelers were to blame for the Cincinnati debacle. It’s a blemish on Harrison’s career (egads…orange stripes!) and the Steelers wasted a quality year of his talents. My issue with the Steelers was after he split with Cincinnati. He made the first step by acknowledging he wanted to come back home and the fans were lining the streets welcoming him back. But the front office (in my opinion) stayed prideful and dragged it out for many, many months before reluctantly putting him back on the roster. I think having him play behind Jarvis for several years was a continuation of the snub.

  • I appreciate your kind words. I didn’t see the same degradation of talent in DeAngelo as you did. I know he got injured, but he always flashed (from my perspective) when I saw him play.

  • Brenton deed

    I think the FO were also worried about that back injury he suffered… that normally signals a long term decline. Of Harrison is different!

  • Brenton deed

    Yes you get the sense that the organisation is REALLY ANNOYED about that loss and the way it happened.

  • francesco

    Yes…there was a missed TD catch if i remember by Hamilton and also not getting it in the end zone from the one yard line pretty much did us in… when you know that playing NE you must play perfect football.

  • John

    I think the issue with D’Angelo is simply about money. They have Conner and don’t want to pay the kind of money it would take to have someone like Williams be the back-up given what they are paying Bell. Williams played great. Just a pricing game I think and the injuries to Williams did not help either.

  • John

    I think it is all about price on Williams. He would want too much money and they drafted Conner. Bell is making a ton of cash. They are being cheap with their back-up dollars.

  • Beaver Falls Hosiery

    DWill’s base salary in 2016 was $2 million plus another $565 K from his signing bonus. The league minimum for a veteran with his experience in 2017 is $1 million. Even if they paid him $ 2 million don’t think the $$ was the issue for the organization – I believe they evaluated his skill level and risk of injury too high.

    BTW – his estimated net worth in 2015 was $ 27 million. He should not be hurting if he has stewarded his $$.

  • John

    If you have heard Williams interviewed lately, money is/was an issue. Not just with Steelers. The whole league want to get cheap with RBs especially back-ups.

  • John

    My memory is Steelers wanted JH to take a dramatic pay cut to stay. This makes for tough optics. He then went to Cincy for money that was more in line with the reduced value the Steelers were offering him. He was played out of position there and it did not work out well for any of the three sides. I don’t fault anyone big time for it. This is the hard part of the game. Maybe Steelers could have paid him one more year or asked for less of a cut but it is now all water under the bridge.

  • Beaver Falls Hosiery

    I thought DWill’s recent comments were in support of Le’Veon Bell. If he wanted more that what he made in 2016 ($2 million) then you are right – he priced himself off the team since his skills were declining.

    I do appreciate DWill as a player; but not in favor of paying him to the detriment of the team’s salary cap position.

  • Terrible Towlie

    as it ended up they did offer more than Cincy, and it was he(james) that turned them down

  • RASTA

    Spot on, as he is only a phone call away, and without taking up a younger players roster spot as there seems to be no apparant fear of another team wanting him.

    Players however that we may not have room for that other teams may want, depending on their upcoming preseason game tapes:

    Shade Tree (people mover)
    Cobi Hamilton (shows up on game day)
    Arthur Moats (fierce and great Vet)
    Sammie Coates (teams need WR’s)
    Matt Feiler (coached by Munchak & would be on team if keeping 9 OL)

    Steelers going to the Super Bowl!

  • Conserv_58

    The Steelers did not fold on Harrison. Harrison and his agent were delusional about his market value. The Steelers made James a fair market offer and he turned it down. Deebo ended up sitting home waiting for the phone to ring all off season and all he heard was crickets. The bengals called him toward the end of their training camp. Deebo ended up signing with them for around the same money that the Steelers offered him. IMO, the only reason why Deebo’s signed with the bengals was because he was too prideful and embarrassed to admitt that he was wrong about his market value.

  • Conserv_58

    The difference in offers was nominal. The real issue was James made a tactical error in thinking he was worth more.

  • Conserv_58

    That’s not how I saw it play out.

  • Conserv_58

    Michael, I was pleased to read that you and I are of the same opinion regarding Dobbs’ demeanor. I too posted that I really like the look in his eyes. He has a steely eyed, calm, cool and collected expression. He strikes me as being mature beyond his years. I agree that with his exceptional intellect, his ability to absorb information quickly and the fact that he’s very humble and self disciplined he’s only scratching the surface of what he’s capable of.

    I also posted after the giants’ game that one of the things that impressed me the most was how strong the Steelers’ depth proved to be. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen such quality depth at so many positions. That convinced me that this team has the look and feel of a championship calibur contender.

    As for D. Will., I’m on the fence about his ability to contribute the way he did now that he’s at the ripe old age of 35. 35 years of age for a RB in the NFL is old. The one thing that factors in greatly is their ability to remain healthy.

  • 35 is up there for sure…especially in Running Back years. Williams does have some advantage in that he shared the backfield in his younger years, so that gives him more tread. He certainly has been sparingly used the last three years. I think with both Bell and Connors being so young they can afford to have an experienced pinch hitter…even if he’s graying. I thought that he has two unique qualities…the ability to jump in a flash and look like a number one running back…and secondly his ego is low enough that he’ll be a good teammate on the sidelines if he’s not needed. That’s hard to find. Finally, I haven’t seen his play fall off at all. Personally, I think he has another good year or two…but perhaps the Steelers know more than I do in terms of a health issue.

  • Conserv_58

    For me, there is also the comment D. Will made when he was asked about the possibility of having to fill in for Bell for an extended period of time that gives me pause about re-signing him. D. Will admitted to not relishing the idea of having to carry a full time load for an extended period of time at his age. There is also the fact that he was injured and unavailable for an extended period of time in his last year with the team. I really like what D. Will brought to the team because he filled in admirably. I’m not convinced that at his advanced age he can be counted on to be available when needed.