Pittsburgh Steelers: Best and Worst of Team's Preseason
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The Pittsburgh Steelers might be 0-3 in the preseason, but that doesn't mean there aren't some good things happening as they prepare for the 2013 season.
Of course, there are reasons the Steelers are 0-3, and if some of those problems aren't solved, the Steelers will have trouble winning games that count in the standings.
Here's a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of the Steelers' 2013 preseason.
Unless noted, statistics are taken from NFL.com.
Best: Ben Roethlisberger
More and more NFL pundits are calling Week 3 of the preseason a "dress rehearsal" for the regular season.
If that's the case, Ben Roethlisberger is again ready for the big stage.
The Chiefs and Steelers starters played the entire first half in Saturday's game at Heinz Field, and Roethlisberger completed 13 of 19 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown.
Roethlisberger's first pass was a 49-yard completion to Antonio Brown that ultimately led to a field goal. His touchdown pass was vintage Roethlisberger, a 13-yarder to Jonathan Dwyer while dodging the pass rush.
At the beginning of training camp, Roethlisberger told NFL.com that his knee feels "great" after having surgery in May.
Against Kansas City, Roethlisberger looked like he did before the Chiefs' previous trip to Heinz Field—before Tamba Hali and Justin Houston combined to alter the course of the Steelers’ 2012 season.
Worst: Le'Veon Bell Injuries
Le'Veon Bell never missed a game or a practice in three years at Michigan State, according to ESPN.com.
Welcome to the NFL, Le'Veon.
Bell was kept out of the Steelers' first preseason game because of a nagging knee injury. Then in his long-awaited debut, he tore a ligament in his right foot after gaining nine yards on four carries against the Washington Redskins, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The Steelers selected Bell in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft after he led the Big Ten with 1,793 rushing yards on 382 carries.
Bell was anointed the savior of a running game that was ranked 26th in yards per game last season. The Steelers' 1,537 rushing yards in 2012 was their second-lowest total since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, according to ESPN.com.
With Bell expected to be out about six weeks, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Steelers are in the same situation as last season, with no clear starter between Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman.
Dwyer has run for 108 yards on 28 carries during the preseason, an average of 3.9 yards per carry.
Redman ran for seven yards on two carries in the preseason opener, but has missed the last two preseason games with a stinger, according to CBSSports.com.
Bell can't get back soon enough, but when he does come back, who knows how long he can stay on the field. He was durable in college, but he might turn out to be delicate in the NFL.
Best: Troy Polamalu
It's nice to see Troy Polamalu flying all over the field again.
In the Steelers' preseason game against the Chiefs, Polamalu penetrated the backfield to blow up the play when the Chiefs went for it on 4th-and 1. Jarvis Jones and Ziggy Hood stuffed Jamaal Charles for no gain.
Polamalu also recovered a fumble later in the game.
Polamalu has looked like his old self (except maybe a little thinner) throughout the preseason after missing nine games last season with a calf injury.
The first signs of Polamalu's revival came last season when he played the final five games. After easing his way back into the lineup, he improved each week. In the last two games, he had a sack and an interception, and broke up three passes.
During the offseason, the 32-year-old Polamalu hired a physical therapist to help break up scar tissue in his calves, according to NFL.com.
If he can stay healthy, it's not hard to see Polamalu once again making an impact in his 11th season. After all, compared to other players on the Steelers defense, he's not that old.
Worst: Special Teams
The Steelers' 0-3 preseason record won't mean a thing when the Tennessee Titans visit Heinz Field Sept. 8.
Nonetheless, the Steelers might have had a win or two to boost their confidence if it hadn't been for their special teams play.
So far in August, the Steelers have had a punt and a field goal blocked, a muffed punt (the culprit on that one, David Gilreath, was cut on Sunday) and a kickoff returned 109 yards for a touchdown.
The Steelers led the Kansas City Chiefs 10-0 in the second quarter when Shaun Suisham lined up for a 52-yard field-goal attempt. Tysyn Hartman blocked it, and five plays later the Chiefs were on the board with a field goal.
Bruce Gradkowski's 34-yard touchdown pass to Markus Wheaton gave the Steelers a 17-10 lead late in the third quarter, but Knile Davis returned the ensuing kickoff 109 yards to tie the game. Josh Victorian whiffed on a tackle attempt.
The Steelers eventually lost the game 26-20 in overtime.
Mike Tomlin and new Steelers special teams coach Danny Smith must learn from history.
In 2001, the Steelers finished the regular season 13-3 and earned home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Special teams was their soft underbelly, however.
In a late-season game against the 6-10 Bengals, the Steelers gave up a touchdown on a fumbled field goal snap and eventually lost 26-23 in overtime.
Then in the AFC Championship Game, the New England Patriots took full advantage of the Steelers' shoddy special teams play. They scored touchdowns on a punt return and a blocked field goal and stunned the Steelers 24-17. The victory catapulted the Patriots to three Super Bowl titles in four years.
If the Steelers don't get their special teams problems fixed in 2013, their season will be over long before the AFC Championship Game.
Best: First-Team Defense
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The Steelers' defensive starters have been the team's bedrock through three preseason games.
In Week 3 of the preseason, the Steelers defenders showed they can be the disruptive force that they were in 2010. The Steelers forced 35 turnovers that year and reached the Super Bowl. They forced 35 turnovers combined in 2011 and 2012.
The much-maligned Ziggy Hood had four tackles, a tackle for loss, a sack and a quarterback hurry against the Chiefs, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Brett Keisel forced a fumble and Troy Polamalu recovered it.
In what's amounted to a little more than a full game of preseason playing time, LaMarr Woodley forced a fumble against the Chiefs and had a sack against the Redskins.
The Steelers limited the New York Giants to a field goal after a blocked punt set them up at the Steelers' 5-yard line.
Kansas City's Jamaal Charles, the NFL's fourth-leading rusher last season with 1,509 yards, was held to 10 yards on seven carries against the Steelers.
The Steelers have some questions heading into the 2013 season. The first unit of their defense isn't one of them.
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The Steelers have been penalized 24 times for 243 yards in the preseason.
They would be on pace for 128 penalties for almost 1,300 yards over 16 games.
If the Steelers don't cut back on the penalties when the games count, they'll likely be one of the most flagged teams in the NFL.
Sure, the Ravens won the Super Bowl last year despite seeing all that yellow, but Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was concerned enough to bring officials into practice, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, after the Steelers were charged with eight penalties for 95 yards in their 24-13 loss to the Redskins.
It didn't help. The Steelers were slapped with nine penalties for 98 yards against the Chiefs.
Best: Jarvis Jones
Jarvis Jones’ performance—along with the good news that he just has a chest bruise after being injured against the Chiefs, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review—is another positive theme of the Steelers’ preseason so far.
The Steelers' first-round draft pick recovered a fumble against the Giants, forced a fumble against the Redskins and teamed up with Ziggy Hood to stop the Chiefs' Jamaal Charles on 4th-and-1.
With one preseason game to go, the competition between Jones and Jason Worilds to start at right outside linebacker is coming down to the wire. Jones has a realistic chance of becoming the first rookie defender to start for the Steelers since Dick LeBeau became defensive coordinator in 2004.
Even if Jones doesn't start in Week 1, he's well on his way to becoming the Steelers' best first-round draft pick on defense since Lawrence Timmons in 2007.
Worst: Nik Embernate Injury
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It's easy to forget because it seems like ages ago, but the loss of Nik Embernate on Aug. 1 can't be overlooked.
The Steelers thought enough of Embernate to make him their highest-paid undrafted free agent, according to Spotrac.
Embernate tore his ACL and MCL and was put on injured reserve, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The 6'4", 304-pound Embernate started 46 games at guard for San Diego State and could have provided depth on the offensive line. He was dubbed "Embernasty" for his physical demeanor on the field, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Mike Adams, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert are the Steelers' projected starters on the offensive line. There's not much depth behind them.
Kelvin Beachum, who can play guard and tackle, and backup center John Malecki are the only other Steelers offensive linemen who have shown they belong on an NFL roster. It's looking like the eighth offensive lineman will make the team only because the Steelers need eight offensive linemen.
Pro Football Focus, via Rotoworld, ranked tackle Guy Whimper 74th out of 80 offensive tackles last season. Chris Hubbard has seen a lot of time at guard, but he's only 285 pounds. Tackle Joe Long had a rough night against the Chiefs in his first extended playing time.
Embernate could have beaten out all those guys for a roster spot.
Best: Cortez Allen's Speedy Recovery
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While the Steelers' 2012 playoff hopes were going down the drain, Cortez Allen was giving Steelers fans something to look forward to in 2013. In the final two games, he broke up three passes, intercepted two passes and forced two fumbles.
Allen earned the starting cornerback job this season in place of Keenan Lewis, who signed with the New Orleans Saints as a free agent.
That plan hit a snag when Allen had "minor" knee surgery on Aug. 2, according to NFL.com. But Allen was back on the field against the Chiefs three weeks after the procedure and led the Steelers with six tackles. He was credited with coverage on two incompletions, and when he did allow a reception, he wrapped up the receiver right away and didn't allow yards after the catch.
Allen, entering this third year in the league, probably won't be playing much in the Steelers' preseason finale on Thursday. The Steelers need him healthy to start the season.
Worst: Tight End Injuries
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It shouldn't come as a surprise that Heath Miller won't be ready to play in Week 1.
What the Steelers didn't plan for was an injury to the guy they brought in to spell Miller until he returned.
Matt Spaeth, back for a second tour of duty with the Steelers after two years in a Chicago Bears uniform, suffered a Lisfranc injury in his foot and will be out until October, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
According to Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Steelers could put Matt Spaeth on injured reserved with the designation to return.
That means that after catching seven passes in his rookie season, David Paulson enters the year as the Steelers' No. 1 tight end. He's caught four passes during the preseason, although he dropped one against the Chiefs. At 6'4", 246 pounds, Paulson is small for a tight end by today's standards. He's a work in progress as a blocker.
The Steelers did get good news on the tight end front when David Johnson returned to action in Week 3 of the preseason after missing all of last season with an ACL injury.
In addition to Paulson and Johnson, the Steelers likely will use a roster spot on Miller hoping he can return early in the season. That might force them to carry a fourth tight end on the roster until Miller is ready to play, and that could leave them thin at another position.
Of course, the Steelers could solve that conundrum by continuing to line up Beachum at tight end.
Best: Markus Wheaton
The Steelers have a hot hand when it comes to drafting wide receivers in recent years.
Markus Wheaton might be a hair slower than Mike Wallace, but he's adapting to the NFL just as quickly as Wallace did when he was a rookie in 2009.
Wheaton, who was a third-round pick like Wallace, has caught seven passes for 114 yards and a touchdown in the preseason. He's averaged 16.3 yards per reception, but he's not just a deep threat. He caught an eight-yard pass in traffic on 4th-and-2 against the New York Giants in the preseason opener.
He even made a special teams tackle against the Chiefs.
Wheaton has seamlessly ascended to the No. 3 wide receiver spot and will make Steelers fans forget about Wallace—except when the Miami Dolphins visit Heinz Field on Dec. 8.