Under the lights at Heinz Field for the first time, the Pittsburgh Steelers did not shine in their 18-13 loss to the New York Giants. Though it was only their first preseason game, there was some cause for concern, as many of the problems from 2012 are still visible in 2013.
The starting defense was slow on the pass rush, and, as a result, it was victimized for a big play. Point production continues to plague the offense, as it failed to put up a touchdown. But nothing was worse than the play of the special teams.
Despite being a focus of camp, new special teams coordinator Danny Smith could not have seen a worse performance—one that included penalties, a missed block and a blocked punt.
However, not all was negative, as the ground game looked solid with the first team, and several young defenders turned in some outstanding performances.
Here is a look at some of the strong performances—and weak ones—as I examine the winners and losers from the Steelers’ preseason opener.
All stats for this article are via ESPN.com.
When the first-team offense was on the field, it was clear that it was not out there to work on the passing game. Instead, the offense focused on running the football, which limited Ben Roethlisberger’s opportunities.
Although he completed only 50 percent of his passes for 36 yards and was sacked once, Big Ben looked strong in the pocket and made several nice passes.
His best pass of the night was a 20-yard dart to Antonio Brown in the end zone. Roethlisberger placed the ball perfectly where only Brown could make the reception, but Brown was unable to get both feet down before being knocked out of bounds by the defender.
The only downside to Roethlisberger’s night was using two timeouts in the first quarter.
Meanwhile, Bruce Gradkowski looked good as the backup quarterback, with better accuracy than his final stats (6-of-11 passing) indicated and the ability to move around in the pocket. He is a clear upgrade over Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch and should get better as he continues to get more comfortable in the offense.
Landry Jones looked pretty much as he has in training camp. A lot of his passes went sailing over his receivers' heads. And on one of the ugliest plays in the game, Jones had a miscommunication with Baron Batch on a running play, resulting in a fumble and a safety for the Giants.
Once Jones began throwing to his former college teammate, Justin Brown, he began to settle down some. But overall, it was not an impressive debut.
John Parker Wilson was not much better. Despite completing four of his five attempts, he was sacked four times and looked indecisive. It does have to be said that he was playing behind a porous offensive line.
Also, you must keep in mind that this was only the first preseason game. There is plenty of time for improvement as these two compete for the third-string role.
LaRod Stephens-Howling was the big winner in Pittsburgh’s backfield, as he got a bulk of the carries with the first-string offense. He finished the night with seven carries for 40 yards and looked very good throughout the process.
His short stature made it tough for defenders to find him, as he was patient to find holes in the line and used his quickness to make cuts to avoid defenders.
Stephens-Howling will never be a feature back, but his versatility will make him a valuable addition to the Steelers roster, and he should get plenty of touches this year.
Will Johnson also gave us a taste of what he can do in the passing game, catching two balls for 18 yards. He is dangerous in space and will be a nice outlet behind the play when the team needs between five and eight yards to pick up a first down.
Jonathan Dwyer didn’t have the luxury of working with the starters, but you would like to see an improvement over his 2.5 yards per carry, particularly since he is competing for the starting job. He did have a nice run of 11 yards to the outside on one play, but he only had four yards on five other carries. Dwyer also dropped two passes.
Baron Batch did not have a solid night either, as he continues to struggle to run between the tackles. He had four yards on five carries with no run longer than two yards.
The final roster spot may come down to these two players. If the Steelers want a running back who will carry the ball, the nod will go to Dwyer. If they need a player who can play special teams as well, Batch will be their man.
Even though the passing game was not a focus, several receivers stood out with their positive contributions.
Emmanuel Sanders looked comfortable in the starting role and caught all three of his targets. He only averaged nine yards per reception, but the Steelers were not throwing the ball deep.
Markus Wheaton had a tremendous reception along the sidelines in which he got both feet down, but replay reversed it after it was determined that he lost control of the ball as he hit the ground. He caught the only other ball that went his way and took one reverse for 10 yards. Though his stats may not have been impressive, he played the game fast and looked very comfortable on the field.
Justin Brown had the benefit of playing with his college teammate Landry Jones, and it showed. He led the team with four receptions for 32 yards and made some nice adjustments on the ball.
Not only did David Gilreath fumble a punt, but he did not have a pass thrown his way. He has had a solid training camp, but with a couple of gaffes in the return game and other receivers showing potential, it was not a good start to his preseason.
No tight end in particular stood out in a positive or negative way. That isn’t necessarily bad considering the lack of depth that the Steelers have right now.
David Paulson dropped a pass in which a defender put a good hit on him, but he did a nice job finding a soft spot in the zone to get open in the first place. He added one reception for 13 yards and was OK while blocking.
For the first time in years, the starting offensive line actually was a bright spot in the preseason. It wasn't perfect, but there were encouraging signs.
Stephens-Howling averaged 5.7 yards per carry behind the line, as it was able to open up holes in the running game.
Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro fired off of the line and were getting after defenders. If this continues, they will form an excellent duo in the middle.
Mike Adams held his own at left tackle and did not give up a sack, while Marcus Gilbert was fair on the right side of the line.
Ramon Foster had a bit of a shaky night and gave up one sack in which he barely touched the defender and allowed him to go right up the middle to bring down Roethlisberger.
Of the backups, John Malecki performed pretty well and did not appear to have any issues snapping the ball. He is pretty close to wrapping up the backup center job.
The backup offensive line was not very good, but that was to be expected. The unit is littered with underperforming veterans and undrafted free agents. If any starters go down, the depth will be tested.
Outside of Kelvin Beachum and Malecki, the Steelers lack quality depth.
One of the best players of the night for either team was Al Woods. He was dominant against the Giants’ backups, leading the Steelers with nine tackles—six of them solo—and two tackles for a loss. He also added a sack and had one quarterback hit. Though he may not be a starter, this is the type of production that coaches like to see from their backups.
The defensive line as a whole was strong. Ziggy Hood was a big factor on the starting defense's goal-line stand on the Giants’ first drive. He was able to fight through blocks and stop one of the running plays from scoring. Cameron Heyward was active all night and was able to penetrate the offensive line, as was Alameda Ta’amu. Ta’amu commanded double teams and made one tackle for a loss, but he also was easily blocked other times. Overall, he looks much better than he did as a rookie.
And though he did not show up big on the stat sheet, Brian Arnfelt was also able to find his way into the backfield and was a disruptive force.
It is hard to call any of the defensive linemen “losers” from the game, but Hebron Fangupo will be on this list. There was nothing that Fangupo did so horribly that he ended up here, but rather the play of Ta’amu.
The Steelers kept Ta’amu around after a terrible camp and legal troubles as a rookie, and he began to provide them with some return on that decision Saturday night. As a result, Fangupo may be on the outside looking in.
Depth at linebacker has been a concern, but the young inside linebackers took advantage of their opportunities.
Marshall McFadden has been a name that's come up a lot during training camp; he lived up to much of that hype with six tackles and a quarterback pressure.
Despite not being a big name talked about in camp, Vince Williams played better than he's been practicing. He showed a physical presence with a couple of his hits as he played with the second-team defense. He had three tackles and a sack.
Brian Rolle was able to get some pressure on the quarterback and was credited with a sack and a pass defended. Kion Wilson was also very active and had a tackle for a loss.
There will be plenty of competition for the inside linebacker spots.
There wasn’t quite as much activity from the outside linebacker position, but Adrian Robinson flashed some of what he did as a rookie. He wasn’t having a great camp, but he recovered a fumble for a touchdown and ran the entire way across the field on a backside pursuit to make a stop on a running play.
The Steelers need their outside linebackers to get to the quarterback, and I would classify their performance as “fair.”
LaMarr Woodley was a step slow at getting to Eli Manning on his 57-yard touchdown pass and otherwise was not much of a factor. Jason Worilds had a sack, but that came in large part due to Cameron Heyward sniffing out a screen pass, causing David Carr to hesitate. He was also called for two personal fouls and had an overall pedestrian night.
Meanwhile, there were a lot of mixed reviews on Jarvis Jones. After I slept on it, I am lumping him in with the losers of the night.
Jones was touted as an impact rookie and had been dominating his competition at training camp. While he did not have a bad night by any means, he did not have a good one either. Too much was made of his fumble recovery, as he happened to be at the right place at the right time. It is not as though he stripped the ball from the running back.
Another issue was his inability to fight off of blocks and dip his shoulder when rushing the passer. These are a couple of areas in which he must develop.
Jones was very close to making plays, but he's not quite there yet. That should come as he acclimates to the speed of the game and gets stronger. The problem is that takes time to develop.
Stevenson Sylvester left the game after injuring his ankle following a tackle he made on special teams. After he made the tackle, Markus Wheaton rolled on his ankle.
Troy Polamalu looked to be in midseason form and was very active near the line of scrimmage and behind the line on running plays.
Robert Golden had a solid game as well, but he did drop an interception. However, there were definitely some encouraging signs, as he looked very comfortable in his backup role.
Isaiah Green may have been the biggest winner of the night. With the lack of depth at cornerback, the Steelers desperately needed one of their young options to step up. Green was that man. He had good coverage in a pass to the end zone and batted down another pass.
William Gay is probably being unfairly targeted here, but I am going to include him on the list of losers. The defense was good, but the matchup was awful. Gay had to defend Victor Cruz, who promptly burnt him and scored on a 57-yard touchdown pass from Eli Manning.
Cortez Allen needs to be ready for the start of the season. Otherwise, you will be seeing Gay targeted like this often.
There were no true winners on special teams, though Drew Butler had a higher punt average (48 yards per punt) than Brian Moorman (43.8 yards per punt).
Reggie Dunn flashed some potential as a punt returner when he caught the corner on one opportunity and picked up 19 yards.
David Gilreath fumbled a punt and fielded another too deep in his own territory. Brian Moorman had terrific hang time on his punts, but his average was significantly lower than Butler's. Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith completely whiffed on a block that resulted in a blocked punt.
It was a poor effort overall and things must improve.