Colts vs. Steelers: Pittsburgh's Biggest Winners and Losers
After wrapping up their first preseason victory, a 26-24 win over the rebuilding Indianapolis Colts, the Steelers are that much closer to figuring out exactly how the players in camp fit together to form the 2012 roster.
Once again, the Steelers had several winners and several disappointments during the game at Heinz Field. Here's a look at the five biggest of each.
Winner: Cortez Allen, CB
When you're locked in a tough battle for a starting job, the best thing you can do is make a huge play for your team. Allen, playing against the starting offensive unit for the Colts, made a beautiful, athletic interception of an Andrew Luck pass that killed an Indianapolis drive and showed that he can make some big plays.
The Steelers are looking for a player who can make some plays opposite Ike Taylor, who is known more for great pass defense than he is for interceptions. Taylor had a pick returned for a touchdown in this game as well, but Allen's was much more important to the competition.
Allen looked good all night and benefited from a lackluster night from Keenan Lewis. While I still think this competition is too close to call, Allen took a step closer to Lewis and has all but locked up the chance to be either the starter or the nickelback. He's completely put Curtis Brown away at this point.
Loser: Charlie Batch, QB
I, along with many others, had been operating under the assumption that Jerrod Johnson was not going to be on this roster for very long and Charlie Batch was, perhaps, the safest of backup quarterbacks, thanks to his long tenure and steady work in relief.
Not so fast.
Batch was completely outplayed by Johnson in this game, and he looked lost in Todd Haley's offense overall. As someone who was at the game, I can tell you that the fact Batch completed seven of his 10 throws was surprising.
Batch looked like vintage bad Ben Roethlisberger in this game. He was holding the ball way too long, running around the backfield with no thought for throwing the ball away, and he just looked completely out of sync at times. He managed to lead some OK drives, but he wasn't very good.
By contrast, Johnson looked comfortable and athletic. This may be a competition after all, and if it is, Batch is currently losing.
Winner: Jerrod Johnson, QB
Let's talk a bit more about that performance by Johnson. He looked pretty good. Consider that the guy was working with linemen who don't have much of a prayer of making the team (except for Mike Adams, who got some late work in) and receivers who aren't the team's cream of the crop.
I'll tell you what I liked about his performance, and it has nothing to do with statistics.
He looks good in this offense. He was coming up to the line, making calls and executing the plays. He wasn't asked to throw often, but he made the most of his throws. He also showed the ability to get loose and gain yards himself. That's something that neither of the other two backups could hope to do.
I didn't have much of a book on Johnson before, and I had dismissed him for the most part. I'm not doing that now. I'm putting him square in the middle of the backup competition. Even better, I'm going to give him the nod over Charlie Batch right now.
A lot can change in the coming weeks, but Mike Tomlin will be sure to give this kid a long look before cut day.
Loser: Terrence Frederick, CB
While there were a lot of brutal performance in the secondary tonight, once the top players took to the benches, Frederick's was abysmal. He got burned, looked lost in coverage and generally just didn't seem like he was ready to play under the bright lights of the NFL.
Here's the problem he's facing. The Steelers have historically been terrible at fielding a deep cornerback position. Anyone who looks like they fit that weak past is going to be sent packing unless there just isn't anyone else.
On a night when Walter McFadden (you may have to look him up) had a so-so night that included some nice moments, Frederick was an abject disaster. Curtis Brown improved slightly on his first-game performance, and he's going to be on the final roster. Josh Victorian (you'll definitely be looking him up) also made a nice play.
The competition for the final corner spots is wide open. So far, Frederick is near the bottom. He's just too raw. That showed up big when he was out there, especially since he was out there against the Colts' spare parts' crew.
Winner: David Gilreath, WR
Every year, there's that guy who just puts on one heck of a show, and it makes you wonder if he might be special. Tonight, that was Gilreath. This is a guy who has bounced around the league before, and that was basically an afterthought in a receiver competition that's featured a bunch of intriguing performances but little consistency.
On this night, Gilreath took the show. He had four catches for 78 yards to lead the team. That included a huge 41-yard romp that started with an amazing catch and continued with some deft running between flailing Colts defenders.
The Steelers, once Mike Wallace swallows his pride and comes back, have maybe two receiver spots still open. Fifth and sixth receiver are black holes on the roster. These guys don't always dress, and they will likely play an awful lot of special teams.
I'd say Gilreath has moved ahead of everyone involved except for maybe Toney Clemons and Marquis Maze. Even so, his latest performance outdid anything either of them have done in game action so far. They're only ahead on potential. That won't outlast results for much longer.
Loser: Kelvin Beachum, OG
This experiment needs to end before someone gets hurt. I'm all for giving a player a chance and I know that coming out of SMU isn't a small leap to the NFL. The problem I have is that Beachum has shown absolutely nothing of value in practice or the two games, so far, to merit being ahead of anyone.
The long march of disaster continued on Sunday night. A costly holding penalty highlighted his poor night, but a series of hideous attempts at blocking also made it hard to watch. I'm fairly certain Ben Roethlisberger doesn't want to entertain the possibility that Beachum might end up blocking in front of him.
There aren't a whole lot of impressive backup linemen in camp at this point, but Beachum has been the worst by far. He looks slow, his technique is sloppy and he just doesn't seem to grasp the NFL offense he's been inserted in. Some guys just aren't cut out for it. I think Beachum's in that category.
Winner: Sean Spence, ILB
It wasn't a huge night. There weren't a ton of sacks or anything like that, but I liked what we saw from Sean Spence. He showed great effort, made sure tackles and didn't look the least bit lost in a defensive scheme that isn't simple in any way.
Spence's speed and his tenacity are going to be great weapons for Dick LeBeau to nurture and build around. He showed some of that on Sunday night. I was particularly impressed at how well he was able to get away from blocks and keep himself in on the play.
It's been a mostly quiet fall for the inside linebackers behind Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons. Spence has provided the best performance, so far, and he may have inserted himself as the top backup choice for Mike Tomlin once the real show starts.
Loser: Curtis Brown, CB
It was a tough night for Brown. He didn't get a ton of looks and didn't do much with the ones he got. He made two tackles, but that was about it for him. The bigger problem was that Cortez Allen, his biggest competition at this point, completely outdid him with the performance we've already discussed.
Given the poor work behind him on the depth chart, Brown isn't in much danger, but he came into this season as a candidate to start. He still just looks very raw and mistake-prone. I think the big thing right now is just getting his coverage skills in place. That was my big concern on draft day last year, and it's still an issue.
The big plays aren't there either. That was his main calling card, but he can't get into good position to make those plays. I think he needs to get a lot of time in Buffalo next week. That'll give the team a better idea of exactly what they can expect out of him this season.
Winner: Jonathan Dwyer, RB
Getting the start in place of injured Isaac Redman, Dwyer made the most of his opportunity. He ran eight times and gained 43 yards. That was a team high in the game and looked like the kind of work you'd expect from a starting back.
Dwyer's potential and talent have always been tantalizing. He's been one of those guys whom everyone wants to see because there's so much promise. The results have been there, too, when he's been healthy and on his game.
This is going to be a make-or-break season for Dwyer. He must show he has it all together now or face the downside of his career much sooner than it should be happening. So far, he's done well. Sunday night at Heinz Field, he looked like the guy who could step in if Rashard Mendenhall and Redman simply aren't able to be on the field.
Right now, the Steelers have to like their running back depth. It looks very, very good despite the rash of injuries we've seen.
Loser: Keenan Lewis, CB
If it were my defense and tomorrow was the first game of the regular season, I'm not sure I'd be completely comfortable starting Keenan Lewis opposite Ike Taylor. I don't pretend to know what Dick LeBeau does or even what he's thinking about his unit's work, but Cortez Allen made a compelling case for the starting job on Sunday.
I was at the game and didn't really think Lewis played that badly. I noticed a few poor plays in coverage, but all in all, I was too focused on the things being done by Allen or Taylor or with the new offensive system.
Then, I got home, and I looked at the highlights. I wanted to see the best of Andrew Luck because that would show me some of the holes in the defense. I was surprised to find that almost every big completion Luck had came against Lewis.
Now, covering Reggie Wayne is no small task, but Lewis was usually a bit out of position or a bit late whenever he was on the screen. That's not a good sign for a guy who predicted he'd be in the Pro Bowl in 2012. Right now, he better focus on the guy who may now be in his side view mirror and passing him: Cortez Allen.