25 Things We're Learning About the Steelers Through Preseason Week 2
Training camp at Saint Vincent College has concluded, and there is a lot about the Pittsburgh Steelers that we have learned.
It was an important camp for the Steelers as they were without many long-time leaders and installed a new offense under Todd Haley.
Haley had a number of obstacles to work around including the absence of Mike Wallace and the fact that the offensive line was in flux.
While the defense is a veteran group, they were without their leader—James Farrior.
They entered camp also looking to bounce back from a disappointing performance to close the season in the wild-card loss to the Denver Broncos.
But now the final preparations for the regular season will move to the team’s practice facilities on the South Side.
There is still nearly a month prior to the season opener, but we’ve learned a lot about the Steelers already.
Here are 25 things that we’ve learned about the Steelers through the second preseason game.
Camp Has Been Feisty
Football is an aggressive sport, and it isn’t a surprise when teammates get at each other. However, this year was exceptionally feisty with more scrums than I have ever seen.
Early in camp, Ryan Clark got in Emmanuel Sanders' face, and the two had to be separated by coaches and teammates.
Willie Colon was involved in a couple of fights, including one which started on the bottom of a pile and resulted in Maurkice Pouncey throwing Chris Carter off of the pile.
Later in camp, Colon got mixed up with Cameron Heyward—another player involved in multiple fights—and ended up punching him in the helmet. Heyward responded by ripping off Colon’s helmet.
Derrick Williams and Andre Freeman had a battle which wasn’t too bad until Clark jumped in and escalated the situation.
But the most talked about fights occurred between Ike Taylor and Antonio Brown, including one day in which they fought twice.
It is a positive sign that the team is very competitive and aggressive, but they also must keep their cool, especially once the real games start.
If nothing else, the feistiness at camp this year showed the true competitive nature that the coaching staff has instilled in this team.
Injured Players Returning Sooner Rather Than Later
Injuries are always a concern come camp time, but the Steelers got some good news on the injury front.
But last Friday, Rashard Mendenhall and Casey Hampton both came off of the physically unable to perform list, joining Max Starks on the active roster.
Mendenhall’s addition to the roster was a surprise, but there was good logic behind it as GM Kevin Colbert explained to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Colbert said:
The trainers felt that he had progressed as far as he could in doing what they were doing and the kid felt confident that he was ready to take the next step. Now, the next step is being able to practice, and where that leads to nobody knows at this point.
What this move means is that all three players—who are all coming off of ACL injuries—will be eligible for the start of the season. If they were on the PUP list, they would be out for at least six weeks.
It is an encouraging sign that all three players are practicing coming off such major knee injuries, but that does not mean they will be ready for Week 1.
But the Steelers should have these players earlier than anticipated, and this will help with the depth on the team.
Injury to James Harrison Is Not Good News
As good as it was to get Starks, Mendenhall and Hampton back, it was not good to hear that James Harrison had a setback with his knee injury.
Harrison had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee last week to treat swelling that has been occurring in the knee. There is no timetable on his return, but Mike Tomlin told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he expects Harrison to return soon.
“Shouldn’t be long,” Tomlin said. “We’ll see when we get him back here and start the process of working him back.”
Pittsburgh lacked a consistent pass rush last season, and this will put a dent in their efforts again this year if Harrison is not ready for the opener.
If Harrison is going to miss significant action, I advocate that Chris Carter should start in his place.
Todd Haley Wants a Physical Offense
It did not take long to figure out that the Steelers were no longer under the guidance of Bruce Arians.
Haley came in and had the Steelers running the ball on nearly every play of team drills during the early part of training camp.
Running the ball set a physical tone right from the start of camp, but there is still plenty of room to improve.
The offensive line still needs to come together, but until that happens, they will have the mindset of being physical up front; and they will know that they will be running the ball in short-yardage situations.
This is a stark contrast to the ground game which was by comparison virtually ignored under Arians.
This has carried over to the first two preseason games as the Steelers have run the ball 75 times to only 43 passes.
Pittsburgh will still be a passing team under Haley, but the ground game will still be valued.
Will Johnson Could Be a Surprise Find
No one likes to earn a job because of a major injury to a teammate, but that may be the case with Will Johnson and David Johnson.
David Johnson suffered a season-ending ACL injury against the Philadelphia Eagles, and Will Johnson may be the benefactor of that.
While Will Johnson has a huge opportunity in front of him, he did not forget what David Johnson did for him. Via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Will Johson expressed his gratitude and said, “Not only is he a good teammate of mine, he’s a good friend. Not only does it hurt the team, it hurts me as well. I learned a lot from him.”
David Johnson is not discouraged, though, and is confident that Will Johnson can do the job. Via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“He was pushing me all camp, making me better and to step up my game,” David Johnson said. “I think he’ll be a great person for the job. The things he’s doing, it seems like he’s been playing it for years.”
Will Johnson can do a little bit of everything—block, run, catch—and could be the long-term answer at fullback.
There Will Be More Throws to the Running Backs
Haley had the offense working a lot running the ball, but the screen pass was also an important part of the offense.
Pittsburgh’s offense spent a lot of time on the screen pass to all parts of the field in camp, and Haley told Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that it will be an important part of the offense.
“We got a bunch of different screens—that’s been an emphasis for us,” said Haley. “We want to get a bunch of them called in real action and see if we can’t get pretty efficient at them because it can be a real weapon.”
The Steelers now have a lot of athleticism on the offensive line, especially with Pouncey, David DeCastro and Willie Colon on the interior; and they should really help the screen game.
There is also a pretty darn good running back named Chris Rainey who could make huge plays when he gets his hands on the ball. Think back to his 57-yard touchdown against the Eagles.
Pittsburgh running backs have made 10 receptions in the first two preseason games, and that number should continue to grow.
The talent is there; now the Steelers just have to perfect the screen pass.
Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley are Getting Along
Have you heard a peep about the relationship between Ben Roethlisberger and Haley? Yeah, me either.
In fact, Roethlisberger has been progressing nicely in Haley’s new offense.
Do not expect to see any friction during the rest of the preseason either.
So far this is a good working relationship.
The two have worked very well together in camp, and the results are beginning to show in games.
After Roethlisberger's interception against the Indianapolis Colts, he went over and had a discussion with Haley.
It was a pure player-coach conversation.
Roethlisberger then went over to discuss the play on the bench, and Haley followed up with some input as well.
Expect this relationship to continue to grow in a positive way.
David DeCastro Is Good to Go
DeCastro did not come in and set the world on fire like Pouncey did as a rookie, but he has still looked like a starter.
Watching DeCastro is very interesting as he has a very “business-like” approach to practicing.
He will intently listen to Sean Kugler and soak up everything like a sponge.
While DeCastro has room to develop physically, the mental aspect of his game is there, and he has performed well in games.
In his professional debut against the Eagles, DeCastro had some good pull blocks to open up holes for the backs and did not look overmatched.
It is very early in DeCastro’s career, and he’s only just begun to show us what he is capable of.
From everything I’ve seen, great things are ahead.
Mike Adams Has Room to Improve
Rookie Mike Adams had a great start to camp.
He had some tremendous battles against former Ohio State teammate Cameron Heyward and looked very strong in both pass- and run-blocking.
But then the games started and Adams allowed two-and-a-half sacks before leaving the game with an injury.
Now with Max Starks back in camp, there will be a battle for the starting left tackle spot.
Adams has shown that he can be a dominant run-blocker and collapsed the defense on several runs against the Eagles.
However, his pass protection will not cut it unless it improves.
Adams must get his hands on the defender and not get blown away with a speed rush.
There was some hope that the Steelers could start both DeCastro and Adams, but unless Adams improves his pass-blocking, he will be on the bench.
There Is Young Potential at Tight End
Weslye Saunders has been the second-best tight end in camp, and David Paulson has been a nice surprise.
Saunders put his year of experience to good use and looks like a second-year pro.
He is very comfortable on the field and has shown enough improvement that he could eventually take over for Heath Miller.
Saunders has improved his already strong route-running and is an even stronger blocker this year.
Meanwhile, Paulson was a long-shot rookie who has shown future potential in the pass game.
Paulson is pretty smooth for a late-round rookie running routes and has very soft hands.
The problem with Paulson is his poor blocking at this point, but he has time to improve there.
However, if the Steelers could stash him on the practice squad, they may have found themselves a keeper for the future.
There Is a Lack of Throws to the Tight Ends
Every year, the Steelers fanbase calls for more throws to the tight ends.
After not being utilized nearly enough last season, Heath Miller figured to have a more important role in Haley’s offense.
Back in May, Mike Tomlin told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette that Haley was excited about what Miller brought to the table.
“Haley is excited about what Heath Miller is capable of,” Tomlin said. “He’s been very clear about that, his excitement to work with Miller. I would imagine that the tight end is going to be a part of our plan.”
Miller felt the same way.
“I definitely see opportunities for that to happen,” Miller said. “That’s not to say there weren’t opportunities in the last offense. We are going to be involved a lot.”
If the tight ends are going to be involved more, Haley is saving it for the regular season.
There weren’t a whole lot of passes thrown to the tight ends in team drills, and they have not been a big part of the passing game in the preseason either.
The Steelers' tight ends only have six receptions and none have been by Miller.
Chris Rainey Will Be Very Involved
The Steelers made one of the best value picks of the draft when they selected Chris Rainey in the fifth round.
Rainey is a jack of all trades-type of player.
He can return punts and kicks or line up as a running back or receiver.
So far, we’ve seen him do all of these things as he has had 19 touches in two games.
Not only has Rainey been moved all over the field, but the coaching staff is finding ways to get the ball into his hands.
Rainey has the ability to make big things happen every time he touches the ball. However, he will not be player who can carry the load.
No matter where he is lined up on the field, defenses are going to have to pay careful attention to Rainey.
That will only mean good things for Pittsburgh’s offense.
Antonio Brown Continues to Shine
With Mike Wallace out of training camp, Antonio Brown had to step up his game.
He did that and more.
Brown has clearly been the best wide receiver on the field, and it isn’t even close.
Though he is a different player than Hines Ward, Brown practices like Ward, and in many ways is beginning to remind me of the Steelers’ all-time great.
Brown had his name taped across his helmet. He gives it his all on every rep and does not accept failure.
After skyrocketing up the depth chart last season, you may have felt that Brown had approached his peak, but he is nowhere near that yet.
Brown is poised to have another big season, and he showed why on Sunday night against the Colts.
On a well-called and executed screen play, Brown utilized his downfield blocking to score a 57-yard touchdown.
Expect more of that from Brown this season.
Mike Wallace Is Still an Important Part of the Offense
Despite Brown continuing to improve, the Steelers cannot replace the pure speed that Mike Wallace brings to the table.
Wallace’s absence further stressed his importance to the team.
While Brown and Emmanuel Sanders can get behind a defense, they cannot do it like Wallace.
Wallace got a lot of flak last season for his drop in production over the second half of the year. This was deserved.
However, the suggestions that he should be traded or not signed to a long-term deal because of this holdout are ludicrous.
There are few receivers in the league as explosive as Wallace, and the day he comes back he should step right into his starting role.
Even in the new offense, Wallace may be the most important player outside of Roethlisberger.
Steelers Lack a No. 5 Receiver
Once Wallace returns, the Steelers will have a solid top four counting him: Brown, Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery.
Behind these players, the pickings are slim.
Toney Clemons was a favorite to earn the position after being selected in the seventh round.
He has good size and speed, but his hands have been very inconsistent. However, he did make one nice sideline catch against the Colts.
Meanwhile, the undersized Marquis Maze has demonstrated good hands but has had trouble getting open. However, he can return the ball.
Other players such as Tyler Beiler and David Gilreath have flashed potential but have also looked like camp fodder.
That has been the theme of camp for the backup receivers.
But Gilreath may have separated himself from the pack with his four receptions for 78 yards against the Colts.
One of these receptions was a very difficult reception which he converted for a first down. It was the type of catch that can earn a player a spot on the roster.
There is still time for one of these players to stand out, but the clock is ticking.
Steve McLendon Could Be a Star
No Hampton? No problem.
Steve McLendon earned his spot on the roster last season and has not looked back.
In fact, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette says that McLendon should have the starting nose tackle job locked down even after Hampton returns.
McLendon is even bigger and stronger than last year and does not look like a former undrafted free agent. He looks like a first-round stud.
Pittsburgh’s defensive line is going to be very strong with him in the middle as McLendon can not only hold the point of attack in run defense, but he also offers potential as a pass-rusher.
All you needed to see was McLendon chase down Michael Vick and throw him to the ground. He added another half sack when he combined with LaMarr Woodley to bring down Andrew Luck.
The Steelers have found a lot of gems after the draft, and McLendon is poised to join this group and become a star.
Defensive Line Is a Force
The defensive line is in a transition year with Aaron Smith’s retirement and Hampton at the end of his career, but that does not mean the line is in for a down year.
McLendon, Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel appear to be poised to bounce back from a relatively down year last season.
Hood had another good camp this year, though he needs to translate this into games. He had an outstanding camp last year and was virtually invisible once the season started.
Keisel is his normal self, and McLendon will bring more to the table than what we have seen from Hampton over the past couple of seasons.
Add to this an improved Cameron Heyward, and the Steelers have four quality players to play on their defensive front.
The line has been an integral part of the re-invigorated run defense, which has been dominant in practices.
While the linebackers may get the glory in the Steelers’ defense, it is the defensive line that gives the linebackers the ability to make plays.
Expect big things from the defensive line this season.
Alameda Ta’amu Appears to Be a Year Away
Alameda Ta’amu was one of the top three-to-four nose tackles in the draft.
Against my better instincts, I felt that he should be able to compete for the starting job even though I knew the Steelers take time to develop defensive linemen under defensive line coach John Mitchell.
It also didn’t help that back in May I believed that McLendon had not shown enough to start.
Since then, I have seen McLendon’s outstanding play and Ta’amu has been looking like a rookie.
Not only is Ta’amu at least a year away from starting, but if Hampton can play, Ta’amu may rarely see the field.
Though Ta’amu has the ability to command double teams, he lacks explosiveness and the technique necessary to succeed in the Steelers defense.
An example of this came against the Colts when Ta'amu was pushed back at least five yards from the line.
He was immediately called off of the field for the third-down play and got some immediate coaching from an assistant.
Hampton and McLendon then spent several minutes with Ta'amu to help correct his mistakes.
The raw talent is there, but Ta'amu needs plenty of coaching and time to develop.
Cortez Allen Is a Future Starter
I have been on the Cortez Allen bandwagon since last year’s training camp and pegged him as a future starter then.
Everything that I have seen from Allen this year has done nothing to change that opinion.
Allen has developed his physical game and continues to be outstanding in coverage.
He has the ability to be a playmaker at cornerback, something that the Steelers lack.
Despite his outstanding camp, Allen remains behind Keenan Lewis, who continues to be a very dependable cornerback.
Allen intercepted Luck after the receiver tipped a ball and deflected it into the air. These are the types of plays that the Steelers' defensive backs do not always make, so it was an encouraging sign.
At some point in the future, Allen’s talent is going to earn him a starting job, but until then he will play a significant role as the nickel back.
Brandon Johnson Can Be a Quality Backup
The Steelers were not very active in the free-agent market, but that is not unexpected.
They did bring in linebacker Brandon Johnson, and the early returns have been good.
The former Cincinnati Bengal has starting experience and is a good special-teams player and is earning himself a spot on the Steelers roster.
Pittsburgh is young at inside linebacker behind starters Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons.
Stevenson Sylvester is only in his third season and is splitting time behind inside and outside linebacker.
Sean Spence is a rookie and should eventually develop into a starter. He may even find his way onto the field for passing downs this year.
But with the lack of experience, the Steelers may want a veteran presence in there as well, and Johnson could be that man.
He has been picking up the defense and performed well in his debut with the Steelers.
Though Johnson won’t make much of an impact this year if he makes the roster, he is the type of player that can really help a team in a pinch.
Chris Carter and Adrian Robinson Are Showing Potential
Future stars at outside linebacker flash the ability to get to the quarterback early in their careers. Chris Carter has done just that.
Though he is at least a year away, Carter is beginning to show signs that he can be a starter.
At the same points of their respective careers, I feel much more comfortable with Carter than I did with Jason Worilds.
Carter is a speed-rusher at this point of his career, and he could be a threat against tackles with slow feet.
But he still needs to work on his all-around game.
Despite being visibly stronger, Carter still does not have the power to get by the massive tackles with a bull rush. He’ll need to improve his lower body strength.
Carter also needs to continue to develop against the run and dropping into coverage.
However, he has shown enough that I believe that he should start at right outside linebacker if Harrison misses time during the regular season.
Carter has a high ceiling and we are beginning to see it this year.
Meanwhile, Adrian Robinson continues to get noticed.
He applied a lot of pressure against the Colts when rushing the passer and was credited with one pass defense and one tackle for a loss.
Robinson will have a tough time making the roster, but he would be a great addition to the practice squad and one to watch for the future.
There Is Plenty of Competition in Return Game
After two preseason games, the battle for the return jobs should be a three-man race between Sanders, Rainey and Maze.
Sanders has a lot to offer as a returner, but he has a history of injuries and would be better served to focus on his role as the team’s third receiver.
That leaves Rainey and Maze.
Returning kicks and punts would give Rainey another opportunity to get his hands on the ball, and the Steelers have made it clear that they want to get him touches.
Maze may be the best pure returner of the bunch, but is also the most limited as far as playing other positions.
While he is a dynamic returner, Maze is going to have trouble playing receiver, though, the Steelers would just need him to be the fifth option.
No one has stood out yet, and this will likely be one of the final camp battles to be decided.
Shaun Suisham Earned the Job
Shaun Suisham did not have much competition in training camp and should be the kicker again this season.
Danny Hrapmann has a strong leg and has made all five of his field-goal attempts so far, but the Steelers are not going to hand over the job to an inexperienced kicker.
But Hrapmann has at least been successful and could be an option if the Steelers need to make a change in the near future.
Drew Butler Could Win Punting Job
Jeremy Kapinos, where are you?
One place that he isn’t, is in the starting lineup.
Unless Kapinos can return to the field soon, rookie punter Drew Butler will have the inside track on the punting job.
Butler had an inconsistent start to camp but has been improving since.
A long as he gets rid of the shanks, Butler has a booming leg and is fairly good at placing the ball inside of the 20.
Against the Eagles, Butler averaged 49.7 yards-per-punt with a long of 61 yards.
He was not as successful against the Colts with an average of only 44.8 yards-per-punt with a long of 51 yards. Butler also had one touchback when he kicked the ball about one yard too far.
But Butler is not a lock for the job.
Butler must continue to play well because Kapinos has proven himself in the league, and the Steelers know what they can get from him.
Mike Tomlin Has Plenty to Think About
While many of the questions have sorted themselves out, the Steelers are only halfway through the preseason, and there are plenty of questions that must be answered.
There are still positions up for grabs and cuts to be made, and many of the players will make this a difficult process.
However, it may not be difficult in the traditional sense of which good player is going to get cut, but could be tough finding two or three guys who are actually good enough to make an NFL roster.
While the Steelers are a deep team, there are some distinct holes at the bottom of the depth chart, and no one has stood out enough to take claim of a job.
Tomlin will have plenty to think about as the Steelers approach the season opener on September 9th.