NFL Preseason Week 2 Roundup: Steelers Need Ben Roethlisberger More Than Ever
On Sunday, four more NFL teams officially reached the midway point of their preseason, with the Pittsburgh Steelers hosting the Atlanta Falcons and the Los Angeles Chargers taking on the New Orleans Saints in a pair of standalone exhibition games.
Three of those four teams didn't use their regular starting quarterbacks, and key players were absent on both sides of the ball in Pittsburgh and L.A., but that doesn't mean we didn't learn a lot from the 120 minutes of football that were played.
Here are a handful of takeaways from the second Sunday of the 2017 NFL preseason.
Josh Dobbs Isn't Ready, so Big Ben Had Better Stay Healthy
Steelers franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger publicly flirted with the possibility of retirement in the offseason. The 35-year-old waited until April to confirm he'd be back for the 2017 season, former teammate Willie Colon later told PFT Live that Big Ben "seriously" considered walking away, and Roethlisberger told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last month that he remains undecided on his future beyond this year.
Per Bouchette, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert stated earlier this month that the team has "to be prepared" for the post-Roethlisberger era. And considering that the tough but frequently banged-up five-time Pro Bowler has missed seven starts due to injury in the last two seasons, there's a strong possibility they'll need to be prepared for life without Roethlisberger before having to officially face life after Roethlisberger.
That might be a big reason they used a fourth-round draft pick this spring on former Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs. And though the 22-year-old has had a chance to start each of Pittsburgh's first two preseason games, his performances have left a lot to be desired.
Dobbs completed just 10 of 19 passes for 70 yards Sunday against the Falcons, giving him a completion percentage of 52.9 and a passer rating of just 40.1 at the midway point of the preseason. He's thrown three interceptions on 34 attempts this month, and his only non-short completion Sunday actually came on an underthrown pass to Martavis Bryant.
Veteran backup Landry Jones is still coming back from an abdominal injury, and Jones doesn't have much potential as a starter (interim or long term). The Steelers were clearly hoping Dobbs could put on a show and win the backup job this summer, giving the team and its fans some extra comfort headed into the 2017 campaign.
But Dobbs is running out of chances to accomplish that.
James Conner Gives the Steelers Another Option, but He's No Le'Veon Bell
With superstar running back Le'Veon Bell still holding out, the Steelers would also really appreciate some encouraging preseason outings from backups James Conner and Fitzgerald Toussaint.
Toussaint has averaged just 2.9 yards per carry three years into his career and has just 25 yards on eight carries this preseason. That's given Conner—a rookie third-round pick who overcame Hodgkin’s lymphoma last year and has received plenty of buzz this offseason—a chance to take the reins in Bell's stead. And after missing nine days of training camp and Pittsburgh's preseason opener due to a shoulder injury, he did exactly that Sunday against Atlanta.
Conner rushed for 98 yards on 20 carries in his NFL debut, with seven of his 20 attempts going for nine or more yards. And while a lot of that yardage came against third-teamers in the second half, he passed the eyeball test by cutting violently and flashing plenty of burst.
It wasn't a perfect outing—Conner did more harm than good in the passing game and made a couple of rookie mistakes—so it's not as though the Steelers can now tell Bell—an exceptional receiver with plenty of experience and tread on his tires—to take a hike. But it looks as though they're at least closer to finding their new backup running back.
Takkarist McKinley Was a Force in Limited Action; Should Play a Role as a Rookie
James Conner wasn't the only high-buzz rookie who made his NFL debut in that Atlanta-Pittsburgh game. On the other side of the ball, Falcons first-round pass-rusher Takk McKinley saw his first action of the preseason after missing most of camp and Atlanta's preseason opener while recovering from shoulder surgery.
And he made an immediate impact, beating Steelers starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva to get his hands on Josh Dobbs in his first series. He flashed his explosiveness on a couple other occasions and pressured Dobbs on a play that resulted in a dropped pass.
"For him, we think he's really improved from a pass-rush standpoint in training camp," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said, per ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure. "He's got his legs back under him; just getting a feel for a game he hasn't played since all the way back in November. So for him, it was a long time to get back on the field. We're encouraged by his first time back out here with the guys."
Small sample, but considering it was his first showing and that he probably isn't 100 percent, it was a promising start for a player who has the motor and skill set to contribute opposite reigning NFL sack champion Vic Beasley right away.
Alvin Kamara Makes a Statement for the Saints
Ever since the Saints signed future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson, the debate in New Orleans has focused on how much work Peterson will get in comparison to veteran Mark Ingram. After all, Peterson is a high-profile star who continually defies the odds regarding his body and age, and Ingram is coming off a career year in which he went over 1,000 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry.
But it's time we start considering the possibility that rookie third-round pick Alvin Kamara muscles his way in there.
One week after the shifty Tennessee product rushed for 35 yards on only four carries in his preseason debut, Kamara had 83 yards from scrimmage on only six touches Sunday night against the Chargers. He displayed his speed with a 50-yard touchdown run on New Orleans' first play from scrimmage and later added a 22-yard catch and run on a third-down screen.
Kamara now has 118 yards on 10 touches this preseason, and he's returned two punts for 11 yards each.
Meanwhile, Peterson and Ingram haven't seen the field.
Those two are resting for a reason. They're the guys the Saints will be looking to first back there come September. But if Kamara continues to eat like this, it'll be impossible to keep him off the field.
Murphy's Law for the Chargers
While there's plenty of evidence that preseason results don't matter, preseason performances undoubtedly have impact. That's why it's discouraging that the Chargers struggled mightily again Sunday. Now, two preseason games into their new life in Los Angeles, the Bolts have scored just 17 points on offense.
That unit hasn't scored a touchdown since the first quarter of their preseason opener against the Seattle Seahawks, and they would have been shut out entirely by the Saints—a team that has surrendered more points than anyone else in football the last two years—if not for a 99-yard pick-six from safety Dexter McCoil in the fourth quarter Sunday evening.
Using Football Outsiders' adjusted games lost metric, the Chargers were hit harder by injuries than any other team in the AFC last season. And nothing bounced their way. Per the same source, they should have won eight games instead of five.
This year, they're picking up where they left off.
Their top two draft picks, wide receiver Mike Williams and guard Forrest Lamp, are already out with major injuries. Projected starting inside linebacker Denzel Perryman is out indefinitely as well, and center Max Tuerk and tackle Tyreek Burwell were both injured Sunday night. Burwell was starting in place of veteran offseason acquisition Russell Okung, who has been nursing a leg injury.
Somewhat predictably, quarterbacks Kellen Clemens and Cardale Jones took a combined eight sacks against the Saints.
It's a bit of a mess, which is far from ideal considering the Chargers are already at a disadvantage as they try to win over fans in a market that is more familiar with the nomadic team's new landlord, the Los Angeles Rams.