The Steelers played their first preseason game last night, and the Super Bowl rematch produced a few answers and went on to present a few questions that will have to be answered.
What we learned
OK, so there were a few things that were able to be gleaned from the slow monotonous game played at Heinz Field last night. And it all starts with the second year players.
Shortly after the draft last year many said the Steelers had the best draft in the league with Mendenhall, Sweed, Davis and Dixon topping the charts, but those same critics have come to anoint the 2008 draft class the worst in recent decades for the Steelers.
Not so fast my friends. If you have taken a trip to Latrobe this summer or even if you just watched last night’s game the sophomores have something to say about their bad rap.
Limas Sweed is for real
Based on camp conversations and a look at the tall Receiver last night against the Cards, Limas Sweed is beginning to pull away in the competition for the team’s third Receiver position.
Shaun McDonald was brought in as the veteran Receiver that would challenge for the third spot, but really all he challenged last night was the defense’s hands and awareness.
Almost every ball caught by McDonald was caught on a second effort after letting the ball come out of his hands and then regaining control. Had he been playing against Arizona’s starting secondary the outcome might have been different than the six catches he had.
What Sweed showed last night is that he is finally learning to use his height and reach as a weapon. A circus catch over Linebacker Karlos Dansby and a great adjustment on a 45-yard pass from Charlie Batch are both signs of improvement.
Last year Sweed was less than impressive when it came to adjusting for the ball, much less catching it. His ability to focus and make some of these tough plays coupled with the fact that he has bulked up a bit in the off-season is encouraging.
While he did make a few fantastic plays there is definitely room for improvement. Sweed is still a risky proposition until he learns to judge the ball a bit better.
On more than one occasion last night he misjudged a pass that in turn caused him to come back to the sideline without the catch. Among them was a drop that would have been a sure first down inside the red zone.
Overall he played well and showed signs of being what the franchise thought he would be when they took him in the second round last year.
Dennis Dixon is ready for the next step
After dissecting the Quarterback situation over and over again it was great to finally get to see Batch and Dixon in a real game situation.
The Coaching staff decided to take a long look at second year Quarterback Dennis Dixon out of Oregon, and he gave them something to look at.
A little slow out of the gate in the second quarter, Dixon managed to lead the team to all of their points.
What might have been most impressive was the poise with which Dixon stood in the pocket and delivered pass after pass. Finishing the game 10/19 for 112 yards, Dixon looked impressive as he read the defense and delivered well-timed throws.
The most surprising stat however might be the zero he put up in the box score. Dixon did not run the ball once last night. Very surprising considering the pressure he was under several times. He found a way to move around the pocket and get a pass off. Whether or not Dixon was trying to prove he could pass from the pocket, he did.
As he ages it will be interesting to see how he use his mobility as he learns to make better decisions.
One aspect of Dixon’s game that left some question marks was his arm strength. While he did make several great throws toward the sidelines last night his deep ball was found lacking.
Having burner Mike Wallace open deep twice last night, Dixon under-threw him. One of which would have been a sure touchdown. If Dixon can bulk up a bit and find a way to put some muscle on those deep balls, he could be a dangerous weapon in the future.
We could be hearing chants of Bruuuce this season from the Steelers faithful
Bruce Davis is showing signs of life. After missing all of the preseason workouts last year because of class scheduling with UCLA, he didn’t translate into the NFL game the way coaches had hoped. Only seeing action in five games last season as a special teams player Davis was considered to be one of the biggest disappointments of last year’s draft.
Though he ended the night with a sack and only one tackle, Davis was involved in more plays than stats can give credit for. He played disruptively, a good sign if you are familiar with Dick LeBeau’s defensive scheme.
Watching the intensity and the awareness with which Davis played last night was encouraging to see from a young man with high expectations.
The Steelers might have a power back after all
If you have been to Latrobe for any of the backs on backers and goal line drills you might have known who Isaac Redman is. If not you certainly do after watching last night’s game.
Redman showed up on the scene last night to the tune of 10 carries for 35 yards and two touchdowns. Both scoring runs were from five yards or less. Something the Steelers struggled immensely with last season.
All be it that Redman did it in the fourth quarter against the bottom of the Arizona depth chart, but nonetheless he was impressive.
At 6'0" and 230 pounds, Redman showed up and did what everyone expected fifth round pick Frank Summers to do. Truth be told, he has been doing it all camp long.
His performance blocking in the backs on backers drills have caught the eye of the coaching staff. Redman is slowly, but deliberately making himself indispensable by showing versatility and the willingness to both block and carry the rock in tough situations.
It’s just that no one expected to see this from an undrafted free agent out of Bowie State.
Are you in my five?
If I could put on my best Charles Barkley impression for you, it would have nothing to do with DWade and T-Mobile.
Are you in my five? Mike Wallace is in my five.
Rookie Mike Wallace was a question mark coming in to camp. Could he make the squad and more importantly could he contribute?
There’s a lot of time left between now and the end of camp, but right now I dare you to take the 10 guys on the camp roster and name the top five without saying Mike Wallace’s name.
His speed alone last night was eye opening to say the least. He continuously ran past defenders giving him a step if not two of separation. Unfortunately he ran past where even Dennis Dixon thought he could be. If Flash Wallace and the Steelers Quarterbacks can get on the same page the results could be dangerous.
You better think about putting him in your five.
The Steelers had a few guys make statements last night, but others left questions to be answered.
Who is going to be the kick returner?
Joe Burnett was supposed to make the roster as a kick returner this season, but if that is going to be the case he is going to have to invest in some of those new Nike gloves that Andre Johnson is catching hoagies and lemonades with in the Dick’s commercials.
Burnett managed to fumble the ball twice on returns. Earning him an eye-to-eye talk with Mike Tomlin. The scene brought back “Cowheresk” memories as Tomlin screamed Burnett’s name until he met him on his way to the sideline.
This type of issue is what ended Willie Reid’s career with the Steelers. With most of this being a mental issue, it will be up to Burnett to right the ship.
While Burnett left serious questions about the return job, he did manage to play solid defensively. Returning an interception 43 yards, setting up Pittsburgh’s first touchdown of the night. Solid contributions like this can only improve his chances of making the team, when most of the pass coverage seemed lethargic at best.
The jury is still out on Mendenhall
With Willie Parker taking the night off, Rashard Mendenhall was the number one back. Granted the line did little to open up holes for him, but Mendenhall continued to look unimpressive.
He did very little to make something out of nothing. He showed a few sparks during the first field goal drive, but really lacked the explosiveness that everyone expected of him as a number one pick. He rarely beat defenders to the edge and there was no sign of him breaking tackles or being a physical force up the middle.
Whether or not Mendenhall will pan out remains to be seen. Until he can assert himself in the running game and display the combination of power and speed he was said to have he will remain a huge question mark moving forward.
Can he be the heir-apparent to Willie Parker? The Jury is still out.
The Wrap Up
As the preseason rolls on, look to see Isaac Redman get a few snaps with the first team. Tomlin said in his post game press conference that he would like to see him against some “varsity competition”.
Whether or not he can perform will do a lot for his chances of making the team.
Overall the first preseason game was a positive experience for the Steelers as a whole. Anytime you can win a game it is good for the morale of your team. The Steelers did just that. They won on the scoreboard, but they also won in the fact that they left the game injury free, and found out a little more about what they have moving forward.