Carolina Panthers vs Pittsburgh Steelers: Steelers Preseason Week 4 Game Preview
If the third preseason game is the dress rehearsal for the regular season, then the fourth preseason game is like the half-day on the last day of school. Just like kids can't wait for summer vacation, NFL fans can't wait for the real games to begin.
It's also a half-day of sorts for starters. Traditionally, most first-stringers only play a series or two in the final preseason game.
Get ready to see a lot of Landry Jones.
Jason Worilds, Lance Moore and Sean Spence, all of whom have been nursing injuries, also will sit.
Teams don't like to reveal much of their playbook in the preseason finale. That's especially true in this case, because the Steelers (1-2) and Panthers (1-2) face each other in prime time on Sunday night in Week 3 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The Steelers' preseason victory came on Aug. 16 against the Buffalo Bills. After going 0-4 in the 2013 preseason and starting the regular season 0-4, the Steelers wanted to avoid another winless preseason. But their 31-21 loss at Philadelphia last Thursday was just as discouraging as their 0-for-August last year.
The final score didn't tell the tale. The Steelers starters fell behind 31-7 after three quarters against both the Eagles starters and second-teamers.
Pittsburgh trimmed its roster to 75 players Tuesday and must cut down to the final 53 by 4 p.m. ET on Saturday.
Thursday's game is the last chance for players on the roster bubble to earn jobs, as the Steelers try to enter the regular season with whatever momentum can be gained from a win in the preseason finale.
Steelers Preseason Week 3 Recap
The Steelers left Philadelphia last Thursday night with several Liberty Bell-like cracks in their armor.
They lost 31-21 to the Eagles in what is normally the most telling game of the preseason. They can thank the reserves for making the final score as respectable as it was.
Philadelphia's uptempo offense steamrolled the Steelers defense, churning out 482 yards and 36 first downs. To put that last number in perspective, the New Orleans Saints set an NFL record with 40 first downs in a 49-17 win over the Dallas Cowboys last season, according to CBSSports.com.
Of those 482 yards, 182 came on the ground at an average of 5.2 yards per carry. The Steelers have allowed 503 rushing yards in three preseason games. Their opponents are averaging 4.8 yards per carry. Eagles runners took advantage of gaping holes in the Steelers defense.
To make matters worse, the Eagles did most of their damage without LeSean McCoy, the leading rusher in the NFL last season. McCoy put the Eagles on the scoreboard with a touchdown on a 22-yard screen pass in the first quarter but left the game after two series with a thumb injury.
The only thing the Steelers defense did prevent was a play of 50 yards or more. They led the NFL by allowing 11 of those last season. The bad news is that three of the Eagles' touchdowns came on one-yard runs, one by Darren Sproles and two by Matthew Tucker. That underscores the softness of the Steelers defensive line.
Ben Roethlisberger completed just two of his first seven passes as the Eagles jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. He finished 15-of-24 for 157 yards with a touchdown and an interception, padding his stats against the Eagles' subs.
It was a bad game for Roethlisberger, but there's no reason to be alarmed in a year when he is playing for a contract extension.
The only redeeming performances on the field came from the two guys who were the biggest disappointments off the field last week.
Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount, who were charged after being pulled over with marijuana in Bell's car the day before, combined to run for 55 yards on 16 carries. Of those yards, 41 came in the first half on nine carries.
Bell and Blount provided reasons to believe the Steelers can have a decent ground game for the first time since the days of Rashard Mendenhall (before he tore up his knee in the 2011 season finale). They just have to stay out of trouble.
News and Notes
Bell, Blount Facing Team Discipline
It might be awhile before the NFL decides on punishment for Steelers running backs Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount. Bell and Blount were charged with marijuana possession, and Bell was charged with driving under the influence of marijuana, after Bell's car was pulled over by police in Ross Township, Pennsylvania, last Wednesday.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said "everything's on the table" regarding team discipline, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. The first wave of their punishment came when they were put back into the Steelers' preseason game against the Eagles to play among the scrubs in the fourth quarter.
According to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, if Bell and Blount are suspended, it won't be the Steelers who decide that. The team is limited in what it can do by the collective bargaining agreement. Any suspension will come from the league, and it likely won't come until next year as the league waits for the legal process to unfold.
Steelers Down to 75
The Steelers' locker room will be a little less crowded when they suit up for Thursday night's game. They released 15 players to reach the NFL-mandated roster limit of 75.
Defensive linemen Brian Arnfelt and Hebron Fangupo, linebacker Vic So'oto and safety Jordan Dangerfield were the most notable cuts. Arnfelt and Fangupo spent time on the 53-man roster last season.
So'oto had a sack and forced a fumble in the Steelers' 19-16 preseason win over the Buffalo Bills on Aug. 16. Dangerfield made six tackles, including five solo tackles, in the Steelers' preseason opener against the New York Giants.
NFL teams must trim their roster to 53 by 4 p.m., Saturday.
Howard Jones, a 24-year-old undrafted rookie from Division II Shepherd University, survived the cutdown to 75 and is trying to usurp Chris Carter for a roster spot at outside linebacker.
Jones recovered three fumbles in the first two preseason games. He returned one for a touchdown and another to the 1-yard line to set up the Steelers' game-winning field goal against the Bills.
Carter, a fifth-round draft pick in 2011, is still searching for his first NFL sack as he enters his fourth season.
At wide receiver, rookie fourth-round draft pick Martavis Bryant, second-year player Justin Brown and free-agent pickup Darrius Heyward-Bey appear to be in a three-way battle for two jobs.
Bryant has five receptions and one touchdown in the preseason, but he's also failed to come up with some catchable balls and fumbled twice in the preseason opener.
Brown, a sixth-round pick last year who spent 2013 on the practice squad, caught three passes in the first two preseason games but came up empty against the Eagles.
Heyward-Bey took a step forward with three catches for 54 yards, including a touchdown catch from Bruce Gradkowski, against the Eagles.
The No. 7 overall draft pick by the Oakland Raiders in 2009, Heyward-Bey has surprised Steelers coach Mike Tomlin with his special teams work. “I’m just as pleased what he’s done on special teams as he has at wide receiver—some things, quite frankly, I didn’t know he had. It’s attractive.” Tomlin told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
A Whole Lot of Landry
Landry Jones' roster spot is in jeopardy, even though he's not really competing against another player.
He has to give the Steelers a reason to carry three quarterbacks.
Jones is expected to get the majority of playing time against the Panthers, although it's not clear if he will start, according to Steel City Insider (subscription required).
The Steelers took Jones in the fourth round of the 2013 draft, but he did not dress for a game last season. He has completed 13 of 26 passes for 127 yards with no touchdowns and an interception this preseason. His passer rating is 48.1. He didn't play against the Eagles.
Keisel to Play
Defensive end Brett Keisel will see his first game action Thursday night. Just when it seemed Keisel's career was over, the Steelers signed him to a two-year, $3 million contract last week, according to Spotrac.
Keisel, who turns 36 next month, suited up but did not play against the Eagles. The Steelers brought him in to shore up a defensive line that has been vulnerable against the run. The sight of No. 99 on the field should give the Heinz Field fans a spark.
Tomlin on Keisel: he understands his role is ever-changing, & he’s a shining example of what the professional approach needs 2 b 4 yng pple— Bob Labriola (@BobLabriola) August 27, 2014
How poor was the Steelers' defensive effort against the Eagles? It was so bad that Troy Polamalu ripped into his teammates on the sidelines in a rare emotional outburst.
"It just shows he cares," defensive lineman Cameron Heyward told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "You can appreciate that. I hope everybody appreciates it, because you don't hear from him that often."
Tomlin on Troy's outburst during game vs. Eagles: I like to create an environment where guys don’t need to apologize for caring. Troy cares— Bob Labriola (@BobLabriola) August 27, 2014
The 33-year-old Polamalu, who had an interception in the game, doesn't have many years left. He wants a shot at a third Super Bowl ring. For that to be realistic, the defense has a long way to go...unless Dick LeBeau has kept a lot under wraps.
It might look like Steelers safety Mike Mitchell and Panthers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery switched uniforms.
The Steelers signed Mitchell as a free agent from the Panthers, and the Panthers signed Cotchery from the Steelers.
Mitchell had 3.5 sacks, four interceptions, eight passes defended and two forced fumbles for the Panthers last year after spending the first four years of his career with the Raiders.
Cotchery spent three years with the Steelers, catching 10 touchdown passes last season.
Outside linebacker Jason Worilds, wide receiver Lance Moore and inside linebacker Sean Spence will be held out of Thursday night's game with injuries, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
None of those injuries seem to be major.
Jason Worilds came jogging off the field into the locker room without anything visible on his knee. Looks fine— Ken Laird (@Ken_Laird) August 22, 2014
Moore also sat out the game in Philadelphia with an undisclosed injury, according to Rotoworld. He's caught 346 passes in his career and has the most impressive resume of any Steelers receiver other than Antonio Brown. But he has just one catch for six yards in the preseason as he enters his age-31 season. The Steelers haven't had much of a chance to see what's left in the tank.
Spence sprained his right PCL against the Eagles. It wasn't the same knee that was torn up in the 2012 preseason finale, which also was played against the Panthers at Heinz Field. He won't require surgery, and his roster spot appears safe.
Sean Spence, who sprained PCL in right knee vs Eagles, does not need surgery and should be OK— Gerry Dulac (@gerrydulac) August 23, 2014
Also out are cornerback Shaquille Richardson (knee), a fifth-round draft pick in May, and linebacker Jordan Zumwalt (groin), a sixth-round pick this year. The Steelers could use their short-term injured reserve slot on one of those players, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Players on short-term injured reserve can come back after six weeks.
X-Factors and Matchups to Watch
Steelers' Backup Quarterbacks vs. Panthers Defense
Whoever starts at quarterback for the Steelers, whether it's Bruce Gradkowski or Landry Jones, will have a chance to sharpen his skills against a stout Panthers defense for however long the starters are in the game.
The Panthers were second only to the Seahawks last season with 301.2 yards allowed per game, although they're 23rd this preseason with 346 yards allowed per game.
Steelers Secondary vs. Kelvin Benjamin
Kelvin Benjamin, the No. 28 pick in the 2014 draft, has eight catches for 117 yards and a touchdown in August. Five of those receptions came at New England in the dress rehearsal game.
The Steelers' vertically challenged secondary will face a challenge against the 6'5" rookie. Ike Taylor is the Steelers' tallest defensive back at 6'2".
Pittsburgh has allowed 216.3 passing yards per game in the preseason, more than they've allowed in any regular season under Dick LeBeau except for last season, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Steelers' Struggling Defense vs. Panthers' Struggling Offense
The Steelers won't be facing the powerhouse Eagles offense on Thursday. They'll be going up against an offense that hasn't scored any points in the preseason with Cam Newton calling the signals. Newton will sit out Thursday with a rib injury, according to Black and Blue Review.
Even if the starters are only on the field for a series or two, the Steelers defense could use a three-and-out against any group of 11 discernible pulses just to gain a grain of confidence with the regular season looming.
Steelers X-Factor of the Week: Shamarko Thomas
With Troy Polamalu sitting out and Mike Mitchell not expected to see much playing time, Thomas should see a lot of snaps.
The Steelers traded up to draft Thomas in the fourth round in 2013. They hope he can eventually succeed Polamalu. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) gave him a positive grade for his overall defensive performance, his run defense and his pass coverage in the Steelers' preseason win over the Bills. He played 34 snaps in that game.
It's been hard to gauge Thomas' progress on defense. He played exclusively on special teams last year after Week 10. He'll likely play a lot on defense Thursday and is worth keeping an eye on.
These two struggling teams will slog through this one. The regular season can't come soon enough.
Don't expect any surprises out of Landry Jones. Bruce Gradkowski will have to lead the Steelers to some of their points.
On defense, Ryan Shazier will rebound from his humbling night in Philadelphia. The Steelers will be looking for improvements on the defensive line, with Keisel playing a role there.
It would help if the Steelers' fledgling defense can force a turnover or two and give the offense a short field to work with.
Sounds like a job for Howard Jones.
Prediction: Steelers 17, Panthers 13