Pittsburgh Steelers: What We've Learned Through Week 2 of Preseason
Granted, wins and losses in preseason don’t carry much weight, but it is always good to notch a victory nonetheless.
This second preseason game was very telling in terms of how the practices are starting to mesh with in-game performance. The first round of cuts is just around the corner, and the Steelers’ coaching staff is going to have some tough decisions to make.
So read on and see what we’ve learned through Week 2 of the NFL preseason for the Steelers.
The Passing Offense Is Hitting on All Cylinders
The Steelers came out on Saturday night, after a week of practices against the Buffalo Bills, and attacked their secondary with speed.
I know many fans are hopeful that this team will get back to running the football, but this roster feels too much like that of the late-'90s/early-'00s St. Louis Rams to pass on all that, umm, passing.
With the league placing more focus on defensive penalties in the passing game, it only makes sense that offensive coordinator Todd Haley wants to exploit that. And exploit it he has with four and five wide receivers—something not so common last season—as well as all that no-huddle goodness.
I am hopeful that the Steelers' offensive line will come around with their run-blocking. However, until that time comes, there is going to be no shortage of passing offense to be had with this lineup.
Markus Wheaton Looks Like a Starter
Wide receiver Markus Wheaton was supposed to be an impact rookie in 2013. No matter how you define impact, six receptions don’t qualify.
So far, 2014 looks much more promising for the young wide receiver.
It didn’t take long for Wheaton to have an impact on Saturday night against the Bills. He ran a perfect post-corner route in the first quarter, reeling in a 16-yard touchdown in the corner of the end zone. Bob Labriola of Steelers.com sent out this tweet declaring just how exciting the future is for Wheaton.
Wheaton’s speed opposite of Antonio Brown is scary. With the other talent on the wide receiver depth chart, it will be challenging to double-team Wheaton very often.
What we have seen thus far is that, without help to cover him, this kid can take the top off a secondary.
The Running Game Still Isn't There
No matter how exciting the passing offense is, the lack of punch in the run game is still disconcerting. After a disappointing showing in the first preseason game, I expected to see more against the Bills.
However, that was not the case.
The leading rusher against the Bills was backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who had 17 yards on three carries. This sort of anemic run support will eventually hurt the Steelers’ potent passing offense.
Between now and the start of the season, offensive coordinator Todd Haley and offensive line coach Mike Munchak have to find a way to get some answers. So far, there hasn’t been a group of five players who seem to all be on the same page on run plays.
There is way too much individual talent at running back for this part of the offense to flounder again this season.
Ryan Shazier Is Ready for Prime Time
Dear NFL, let me introduce you to linebacker Ryan Shazier. You are going to be seeing a lot more of him over the next few months.
After sitting out the last preseason game with what Tomlin called a “boo boo,” Shazier used the first half of Saturday’s game to remind everyone why he was a first-round pick.
In one half of play, Shazier racked up nine total tackles and an interception. This was primarily against the Bills' offensive starters. He was a missile on the field. Even on plays where he didn’t quite get to the tackle, No. 50 was on the screen on nearly every play.
While he was out, linebacker Sean Spence played very well. However, it didn’t take very long to see that there is a clear divide between him and Shazier in terms of impact on the game.
Shazier’s play is going to elevate the other Steelers around him and make this entire defense better. If he can create some turnovers and put the opposing offense behind the chains, it will open up the defensive playbook in a major way.
Defense Still Too Passive
Steelers practices have been spirited and high-energy all preseason long. However, in the latest preseason game, the Steelers defense seemed tentative. It is hard to get a read on just why, but there is too much flowing vertically to the football and not enough attacking downhill.
With concerns in the defensive secondary, the players up front have to want to make every play. There’s always a downside to being overly aggressive. Sometimes when you are trying to make every play, you give up some big ones.
However, is that better than death by a thousand cuts, as offenses just march down the field in chunks?
One hallmark of a Dick LeBeau defense is explosive plays. In the past, it has been guys like safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker James Harrison who force the tempo and steal momentum. Can players like Shazier or safety Mike Mitchell take over those roles and bring back that mentality?
Punter Is Still a Problem
I have to admit, I had high hopes for punter Brad Wing to improve the punting situation for the Steelers. At LSU, Wing showed a big leg with some serious hang time.
Even in practices, Wing boomed some punts that made me wonder if the punting slump was over.
However, as the preseason has gone on, things have turned sour once again. Against the Bills, Wing punted six times with a 37.2-yard average.
To quote Charlie Brown, “Good grief.” In fact, it feels like Lucy is pulling that football away every time this team is forced to punt.
With no Adam Podlesh in camp, the Steelers were really counting on Wing to run off and hide with the starting punter job. Now, two weeks into preseason, it really looks like the Steelers are going to have to hit the free-agent market for a former Steeler like Mat McBriar or Zoltan Mesko.
Once again, good grief.
Daniel McCullers Is Going to Make This Team
There was a time when I wasn’t sure if the Steelers were going to be willing to hold a roster spot for rookie defensive tackle Daniel McCullers. He is one of the largest men in the entire league (6’7”, 352 lbs), but all that height and length don’t exactly lend themselves to the role of 3-4 nose tackle.
However, just as he did at Tennessee, McCullers has flashed enough in games that he is a risk worth taking.
In the Giants game, McCullers had a couple of plays where he was able to keep his butt low and extend those massive arms, simply overpowering two offensive linemen. This affords the linebackers behind him clean lanes to the football.
There might not be a full-time role for McCullers in this defense, but situational football is a different matter.
The emergence of guys like Cam Thomas and Josh Mauro means the Steelers have a little more leverage as far as personnel goes. Therefore, the hope is that—short of an injury—McCullers’ spot on this team is safe.
The Landry Jones Experiment Should Be over Soon
It is unfortunate when there are 32 NFL franchises and only about 15 decent quarterbacks. It means finding a good backup is beyond challenging.
The Steelers have things particularly rough with their backup situation. Veteran Bruce Gradkowski is a smart vet with some starting experience but marginal talent.
However, Gradkowski is not the problem. It is third-string quarterback Landry Jones who is the problem. Jones was drafted in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL draft with high hopes. At Oklahoma, Jones was one of the most prolific passers in all of college football.
Unfortunately, since coming to the Steelers, Jones has shown almost nothing in development—particularly in terms of pocket presence or accuracy.
Honestly, I will be shocked if he isn’t part of the first round of cuts.
All player data courtesy of NFL.com.