The Pittsburgh Steelers are winless through three preseason games, but they finally began to show some signs of life.
For the first time this preseason, the Steelers’ first-team offense was able to reach the end zone as they abandoned the run-first approach for a balanced attack. The defense continued to play at a high level with Troy Polamalu and Lawrence Timmons leading the way.
But concerns along the offensive line, numerous penalties and poor special teams play are a few problem spots as the Steelers approach their final preseason game.
Here is a look at 10 things we have learned about the Steelers through Week 3 of the preseason.
All stats in this article are via ESPN.com.
After trying to establish the run through the first two weeks of the preseason, Ben Roethlisberger was able to air it out and it had positive results.
Roethlisberger completed 13-of-19 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown. He threw another beautiful pass that appeared to be a touchdown, but Emmanuel Sanders was not able to maintain possession of the ball as he hit the ground.
Beyond his final stats, the return of the big play was what stood out from Saturday night’s performance.
Roethlisberger connected with Antonio Brown for a 49-yard gain on their first passing play of the evening. Markus Wheaton had a long reception of 34 yards, Michael Palmer had one for 25 yards, Sanders for 24 yards and Jerricho Cotchery for 21 yards.
Mike Wallace may be gone, but the Steelers still demonstrated they can get big plays in the passing game and that should go a long way once the regular season begins.
The Steelers may have had some success throwing the ball deep, but they still struggle to put touchdowns on the board and have had to depend on Shaun Suisham too many times for short field goals.
It wasn’t until the third preseason game that the first-team offense scored a touchdown and they have only scored on three of seven attempts in the red zone.
Part of the problem has been the play of the offensive line. It has been inconsistent which has resulted in a mediocre ground game and has made the Steelers almost one-dimensional when deep in the opponent’s territory.
Combine this with the lost production from 2012—Mike Wallace and Heath Miller—and this may be a problem that plagues the Steelers once again this year.
The Steelers are pretty thin at running back right now with injuries to Isaac Redman, Le’Veon Bell and LaRod Stephens-Howling.
Jonathan Dwyer has had mixed results as the primary back this preseason with 28 carries for 123 yards and has added seven receptions for 31 yards and a touchdown.
He has shown the ability to make a big run, but has been stuffed at other times. Besides this, he has been inconsistent as a receiver and as a blocker, including a missed block against the Kanas City Chiefs that resulted in a sack.
Felix Jones was added to the mix this week, but the odds are stacked against him. Anything the Steelers get out of him will be a bonus, however, he may not even make the team.
Once everyone gets healthy, the backfield has quality depth, but until then the situation is murky and the ground game will struggle.
There is a lot of talent across the offensive line, but it has not shown yet. It continues to grow as a unit under Jack Bicknell Jr. and it will take time until it fully jels.
The tackles have struggled in pass protection—particularly against speed rushers—and will need help from the tight end. Maurkice Pouncey has also struggled and needs to get better if the Steelers want to avoid pressure up the middle.
Besides their pass-protection issues, the line has been unable to get a push in the ground game and has been called for way too many penalties. The offense doesn’t have enough firepower as it is and they have had way too many positive plays wiped out by penalties.
Expect Roethlisberger to be running all over the place to avoid defenders in the early part of the season.
After two years of failing to consistently pressure the quarterback and force turnovers, the defense is showing signs of improving in both of these areas.
In three games, the Steelers have forced seven turnovers (two interceptions and five fumbles) and have had numerous other close calls.
For instance, against the Chiefs the defense forced two fumbles they were unable to recover and had an interception called back due to a penalty.
Besides the turnovers, the defense is showing signs of pressuring the quarterback, particularly from LaMarr Woodley. Jarvis Jones is getting closer as well, as he is showing more each week as a pass-rusher.
Does anyone miss Casey Hampton? Sure, he had a great career with the Steelers, but Steve McLendon is doing just fine the middle of the Steelers’ defense.
He has not put up eye-popping stats, but he has been a disruptive force up front, getting the backfield on passing and running plays and has commanded a double team.
Cortez Allen had his first game action since his surgery on Saturday and was thrown right into the fire. The Chiefs went his way early and often and Allen was in good position to make the play each time. He led the Steelers with six tackles and had one pass defended.
Allen and McLendon are two young pieces to the Steelers defense that are expected to come up big this year. So far they have been up to the task.
If the regular season plays out the way that the preseason has, Jarvis Jones should see plenty of playing time with the defense.
The Steelers’ coaching staff used him in a three-way rotation with the outside linebackers and he has been taking advantage of all of the extra looks.
Jones has seven tackles and no sacks through three preseason games, but he is getting up to speed on defense and is improving his ability to get to the quarterback. More importantly, he has helped create turnovers.
Some defenders have a nose for the ball and Jones appears to be one of those guys. He has a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and had an interception called back due to a penalty.
Jones may not start this year, but his potential as a playmaker on defense is too good to waste away on the bench.
The Steelers' starting lineup—when healthy—is not too bad on paper, but beyond that there are a lot of holes on this team.
Just look at the running back position. They appeared to have plenty of depth at the position, but three injuries later and they have no depth at all. The good news is that all three injured backs are expected back this year; other positions aren’t so lucky.
The Steelers are so thin at tight end they began to use Kelvin Beachum there against the Chiefs. That is risky considering that there are no other players on the team capable of backing up the tackles.
In fact, Beachum would likely be the top backup at tackle and guard with John Malecki being the only other viable option so far. There have been no other linemen that have stood out so far.
Injuries have left the cornerback position thin and there are a number of talented but unproven players looking to make their mark at linebacker and safety.
A rash of injuries to any team would hurt their chances at a winning season, but the Steelers would take a harder hit with their lack of depth.
Seven, eight and nine.
That sounds like progression, right? Well, not a good progression.
Those are the number of penalties the Steelers have had in their three preseason games for a total of 243 yards. That is a lot for even the best teams to overcome.
At 10.13 yards per penalty, you can see the Steelers are taking a lot of severe penalties, indicating a lack of discipline. These are taking away big plays, stalling drives and providing opponents with second chances and field position.
One could argue there have been some bad calls, such as Jonathan Dwyer’s chop block and Allen’s late hit against the Chiefs, but that does not override the problem the Steelers have right now.
Not too long ago, the Steelers had a decent special teams unit under Al Everest.
Whatever it was, the special teams have not been the same.
Danny Smith has not had a good debut as the Steelers have allowed a blocked punt, a blocked field goal and a 109-yard kick return for a touchdown.
There are a couple of bright spots including Shaun Suisham and the improvement of Drew Butler. Reggie Dunn has also flashed speed and is showing why he is worth a roster spot as a returner.
However, the problems overshadow the strengths and time is running out to get these problems fixed before the season starts.