Pittsburgh Steelers: What We've Learned Through Week 3 of the Preseason
As the Pittsburgh Steelers round the turn and head down the final stretch toward the regular season, there are still lots of questions. After Thursday night's loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the players and staff have to wonder if this is really a sleeper playoff team, or just a pretender.
This was a busy week for the Steelers in terms of personnel, and unfortunately, a lot of it was not great. A great deal of the player evaluation this past week has had to do with the upcoming deadline.
The Steelers are required to get their roster down to 75 by this upcoming Tuesday. It is hard to speculate if the past week made that job harder or easier for the Pittsburgh coaching staff.
So, with that, let's take a look at eight things we learned about the Steelers through week three of the NFL preseason.
All players statistics are courtesy of NFL.com.
The Running Game Is Flying High
The big story of the week centered around running backs Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount being pulled over on the way to the team flight to Philadelphia and charged with marijuana possession in addition Bell was charged with a DUI.
ESPN insider Adam Schefter was on top of the story almost as soon as it happened and shared this post on his Facebook page. The crux of the matter, possible suspensions by the team or the league are still up in the air. Nevertheless, the distraction caused by this incident permeated the team on Thursday night.
Pittsburgh has the potential for a really strong two-man power running game with Bell and Blount this year. However, whatever punishment dished out by the team or the league will put a real damper on that. The identity of this team was up in the air going into the week, and this mess just makes the water that much murkier.
Brett Keisel Is Back
The second big story of the week was the return of veteran defensive end Brett Keisel to the team. The Steelers reported Keisel's return to the team on Wednesday via their Twitter account.
Keisel spent the last 11 seasons with Pittsburgh, but spent the entirety of the offseason without a contract. Keisel's role with the defense is yet unclear, but what we learned through this signing is that the coaching staff lacks some level of confidence in the current defensive line roster.
On Thursday night, the Steelers let the Eagles push them around up front, especially in the run game. There could be some validity to notion that Keisel will add not only an element of leadership, but a physical presence that even Cameron Heyward hasn't provided up to this point.
Preseason Game Don't Matter, Unless They Do
NFL fans love to make sweeping judgments based on small sample sizes. After the Steelers beat the Buffalo Bills, in Week 2, the Steelers were back. This offense was just going to fly up and down the field, and no one would be able to stop them. The defense would just swarm teams all year long, right?
Not so much. Against the Eagles, everything that could go wrong, did. The defense looked listless, allowing five rushes of 14 yards or more in the game. The bad news on offense was that the two running backs arrested just a day before only mustered 55 yards on 16 carries.
Unfortunately, the final preseason game will be meaningless, even by preseason standards. That means the sour taste of the Eagles loss is going to linger in the mouths of the Steelers and their fans until that opening weekend matchup with the Cleveland Browns. So, even though the outcome of any preseason game is pointless, this week it was a pretty big deal.
Mike Mitchell Still Not Quite There
Pittsburgh brought in safety Mike Mitchell to add an athletic presence to the defensive secondary. Unfortunately, thus far Mitchell has been mostly sizzle and not much steak. Mitchell's six tackles against the Eagles are a perfect example of how a box score can lie.
Most of Mitchell's tackles, while big hits, happen too far down field to be meaningful for anything but stopping a long touchdown. Pittsburgh has invested heavily in Mitchell to the tune of a five-year, $25 million contract.
If this team is going to turn it around, Mitchell and the entire defense cannot be content to let plays come to them. Mitchell has so much speed and physicality, he must make more plays moving forward and limit opposing offenses. Instead, he's too busy showboating after making very average plays.
Troy Polamalu Is Not Happy
It is nice to know that even in a preseason game, this team still has some fire in it. This week is was safety Troy Polamalu who let his passion bubble to the surface.
During Thursday's game, Polamalu walked a fine line between aggressive play and going too far. It's hard to speculate what his motivation was. Polamalu made several big plays in the game, including an interception.
At one point in the game Polamalu tackled Bills running back Fred Jackson by the head, in his typical aggressive style. He also got into a scuffle with a Bills offensive lineman.
Oh, and then there is the tantrum. About half way through the third quarter, Polamalu proceeded to tear into his defense in the huddle. His frustration level was obvious.
In a preseason game, an outburst like this is mostly symbolic, but let's hope with so many young players on the team, this genuine emotion from a veteran leader will stick and they can take that energy into the regular season.
Snoop Dogg Is Not a Todd Haley Fan
File this one under W for weird. After Thursday's loss, famous rapper Snoop Dogg took to Instagram to tear into Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley. If you are interested in the message, the audio is available on CBS Pittsburgh.
There is some unique level of irony in a gangster rapper famous for expounding the virtues of smoking marijuana to post a video like this after two Steelers players are charged with marijuana possession.
We also learned that Haley seems to have a sense of humor about the whole thing. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (via ESPN.com Steelers writer Scott Brown), Haley is going to challenge Snoop to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.
With everything else going on, a social media spat between Haley and Snoop Dogg is the last thing this team needs. Maybe Haley should consider spending a little more time working on getting a more efficient run game going, and less on humoring this situation.
Sean Spence Dodges Bullet with Knee Injury
When linebacker Sean Spence went down in the third quarter of Thursday's game with an apparent knee injury, the entire collective of Steelers players, coaches and fans had their breath taken away. Spence has spent the last two seasons getting back onto the field, and early returns were glowing. Spence was all over the field, making big play after big play.
Fortunately, according to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, while Spence suffered a PCL injury, it will not require surgery.
Pittsburgh has been able to avoid the injury bug for the most part this offseason. Let's all hope that Spence is able to make a full and speedy recovery and get back on the field. So far this preseason, Spence has been one of the most consistent linebackers on the roster.
Too Much Big Nickel
I am not one to vent about the Steelers. I try to remain professional whenever I can be. However, it is frustrating to see this team's continued emphasis on running the big nickel defense. James Wexell of Scout.com offered up this tweet to illustrate some concerns with the sub-package.
Even if this package does get some great athletes on the field, it is an open invitation to just run right at them. Philadelphia kept finding lanes against the undersized unit and just gashed them. I was under the impression all this turnover was to help keep this team in base defense, not encourage more nickel.
It is a fine line to walk between having the beef on the field to stop the run and the athletes to play coverage. Unfortunately for the Steelers, they have yet to find that balance. The great equalizer will be the pass rush. Finding ways to get heat on opposing quarterbacks, especially in base will help take a lot of pressure off the secondary.