Steelers Thoughts #9 (8/10/15): The Not Ready for Primetime Players

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We leave aside the noble, useful, stated purpose of preseason football for a moment, which is to allow a venue through which teams can effectively simulate, or at least approximate, NFL game speed and coaches have an extended opportunity to evaluate young talent in a crucible of combat ostensibly more competitive than training camp drills would be. We do this because the NFL and its member clubs comprise a cut-throat business cartel that would not only probably sell its soul for an extra 30 seconds of prime time ad revenue, it doubtless has many times over. Televised preseason football (gulp) springs from a modified carnival barker/snake oil salesman’s mentality, with the exception that instead of convincing Joe and Jill Q. American that their ho-hum lives are sadly and shoddily incomplete without the inclusion of this revolutionary new product, it is convincing folks with an authentic hole in their lives that the clearly substandard product being peddled is, in fact, a 1:1 replacement for it. The tickets are full price and the action full contact. The announcers are pros not interns. Presumably so are the players. From an on field quality standpoint, it obviously doesn’t take prolonged exposure to preseason football to reveal the fallacy in that argument, yet we watch for much the same reason Ohio State and Alabama, among others, can push the 100,000 attendee barrier at their annual spring games. We all miss football. We’ve all felt deprived in its absence.

For better or worse, fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers – a flat, first round playoff exit the prior year though nevertheless an important enough force in the marketplace to be tapped to open the NFL season not once but twice (Steelers/Deflatriots on 9/10, baby!) – have had 8/9 circled on their mental calendars since the schedule was first announced months ago. Would the on field performances tonight, so ridiculously early in the team-building process, possibly live up to the overoptimistic and/or terminally pessimistic preconceptions we’ve been so assiduously crafting during our interminable wait? Could they? On an ideal night for football in north central Ohio, a day after platoons of local and traveling Steelers fans used the occasion of Jerome Bettis’ induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame to turn the enshrinement ceremony black and yellow, the Steelers took the field against the Minnesota Vikings, another young team looking to forge strides made during the 2014 season into semi-permanence. Ben Roethlisberger watched the pregame festivities in street clothes, heralding the arrival of controversial professional third-stringer Landry Jones as the night’s starter. In the moments leading up to kickoff, Al Michaels, reporting on a conversation he’d had earlier with Steelers’ coach Mike Tomlin, essentially earmarked Jones, by now a seasoned training camp pariah and bane of many a nay-saying Steelers fan’s existence, as the likely starter for the entire evening.

Though undrafted free agent Tyler Murphy occasionally ran a shoehorned in and completely ineffective Wildcat package on 1st down, Jones indeed went the distance otherwise. In this, only one of a few such chances thus far in his career, would Jones be up to the challenge of engineering the Steelers’ offense from beginning to end, of handling both defensive pressure and the pressure of the moment (prime time NBC Sunday, and, as you’ll remember, the first glimpse of professional football of any sort for all those famished souls*) and pushing the attack in consistently good directions? The short answer was a resounding “no”, though Jones did display decent poise and acceptable command of the offense in spots. He leaned far too hard on checkdowns to his halfback, though he was able to uncork a few sharp vertical completions (an audible, involuntary gasp escaping the lips of this fan each and every time). If his decision-making was a cut above its usual mediocrity, Jones still missed entirely too many completable passes that either sailed high or wide on him or else missed their targets completely, like ships crossing in the night. Unlike many of the other Steelers on trial tonight, Jones is far removed from his rookie season now. This training camp seems like a legitimate make or break moment for him. His play thus far has neither engendered nor rewarded optimism.

*Alone among football games, which usually either require heightened context (playoffs, Super Bowl, NFC afternoon matchup after a Steelers win) or some kind of rooting interest to draw me in, this is, sadly enough, the one game all year I would’ve probably watched regardless of who was playing.

Much of the offseason chatter both emanating from and radiating toward Pittsburgh has either been laudatory of its potentially spectacular offense or wheel-spinning speculation on how the retooled defense – younger, faster, and built to exploit ostensibly superior ball skills in the secondary – would cope with the loss of so many stalwart position players (future hall of famer Troy Polamalu, lumberjack/spiritual leader Brett Keisel, Swaggin’ University chancellor Ike Taylor, hot and cold running sack artist Jason Worilds, not to mention longtime coordinator Dick LeBeau). I’ve tried to temper my own un- or underinformed opinions, hedging my bets on whether the offense would approach Madden ’98 levels of proficiency or the defense junior varsity levels of ineffectiveness. Easier to judge, and far more germane to the conversation even this early in the process, would be the effort and decision-making of the 2015 draft class, as well as certain other high profile underachievers, making this game an unfairly abrupt spot-referendum on players like Jones, uber-athletic ILB Ryan Shazier, undersized OLB Jarvis Jones, straight line speedster Dri Archer, Hair Apparent at safety Shamarko Thomas, and others. Would the Steelers hear from draftees Bud Dupree, Doran Grant, Jesse James, or Sammie Coates? Would especially hungry, virtually anonymous youngsters use this stage as a coming out party, or at least show intriguing glimpses of future potential?

In an interesting riff on all those entrenched training camp storylines, the starting defense decisively outperformed the starting O for the entire first quarter and more. Though the pass rush remained a decidedly mixed bag, linebackers and defensive backs that were already penciled in as starters or are at least likely to see serious action on Sundays this fall made splash plays with some regularity early on. Pro Bowler Lawrence Timmons low bridged an open field runner to deny him a first down. The Vikings then went for it on fourth down and were denied again, with Shazier blowing up the lead blocker and the rest of the attempt collapsing in his wake. It was an early show of applied resolve that made me unreasonably happy at the time. Shazier could often be found around the ball, and seemed for the moment an even stronger, more focused version of the chronic disruptor he was in college. Elsewhere, former Eagle Brandon Boykin flashed solid instincts and above average ball skills, demonstrating excellent anticipation and technique while wrapping up open field receivers and even batting down a 3rd down conversion attempt on a corner blitz. Flip the coin and missed tackles allowed the Vikings to extend the opening drive before it was finally shut down just before the goal line. Shamarko Thomas made and missed tackles in about equal measure – though his eye-catching late rip interception tipped the scales – and the entire secondary bit hard on a play action floater that resulted in the first Vikings touchdown. Bud Dupree was noticeable physically but otherwise a non-factor. The injured Jarvis Jones was M.I.A. Third down conversions remained the Steelers’ Achilles Heel, though I was impressed by the resolve of the, what, fifth string in shutting down later drives. Shazier and Boykin didn’t see extended action but were the clear defensive standouts. I look very forward to seeing what they might bring to the equation once the Sundays start counting.

As could’ve been reasonably guessed going in, the offense was an altogether more sputtering and troublesome beast. Jones’ stewardship does not seem to inspire particular confidence either inside the huddle or out of it. Now beginning his third campaign, he simply is not a dynamic quarterback on any level. Even his failures are ho hum affairs. His final statline of 14/31 for 129 yards and an interception was indicative of why the Steelers lost the game, though it must be said he was also the outright victim of numerous drops or otherwise mishandled balls by an incredibly junior receiving corps. Antonio Brown dressed but, predictably, did not play. Le’Veon Bell took the Roethlisberger route. Heath Miller also did not play, and if either Markus Wheaton or Martavis Bryant ever took the field, they quickly fled before the naked eye could notice them. In their stead, 5th round TE project Jesse James – whose first night in black and yellow was inarguably the worst on the team – had an easy touchdown bounce off his hands on 4th and Goal** and bobbled another potential reception into an infuriating gift interception.The Steelers’ young (activated) receivers might not have had much to work with but, aside from a spectacular one-handed catch by Shakim Phillips and a nice almost conversion off a tipped ball by 3rd round pick Sammie Coates (who appeared unfocused otherwise), they did not exactly cover themselves in glory. A welcome exception came in the person of diminutive, much-maligned anthropomorphic bullet train Dri Archer, who showed a few tantalizing glimpses of what a man as fast and shifty as he might accomplish when given the ball in space. UFA Cameron Stingily took the bulk of the handoffs and was serviceable if undistinguished. He has a baseline effort level reminiscent of a great many other underwhelming pre-Le’Veon backs, and could become a sleeper fan favorite if he happens to beat out Josh Harris for the fourth string position.

**“He was wide open!” shouted my mother in dismay. What else could reasonably be said? Steelers fans tend to expect midseason form, even in preseason. James, after this performance, officially has nowhere to go but up. Here’s hoping he gets there soon.

Preseason is supposed to be a time for workshopping unfamiliar schemes and answering questions about unfamiliar or underperforming players, though surely only so many questions can ever be addressed over the course of an hour of football. Conventional wisdom dictates that it’s more important to win the early stages of a preseason game since that’s when things are the most evenly matched, but that kind of flies in the face of the part of me that irrationally demands above the line effort, and attendant success, at all times, not just the most optimal. The Steelers won the first quarter 3-0 while hardly playing any of their best cards (Ben, Brown, Bell, Heath, Pouncey, Heyward, Timmons) and still were respectable opponents at halftime. Landry Jones had his best success, such as it was, in the early going, though he hardly proved much match for any of the three QBs Minnesota played. Dazzling names they weren’t. I thought the referees were in preseason form as well, missing a fairly blatant holding call in the end zone just before our lone field goal and giving the Vikings a devastating fumble recovery and runback despite the fact that, in my view, the ground was clearly at fault. On the Special Teams front, the Steelers gave up a backbreaking punt return of 50 yards to the half yard line, and ace placekicker Shaun Suisham left the game after being injured on his second kickoff. Details on what went wrong in either case were sketchy. For what it’s worth, I thought Brad Wing had a far better game punting than did Jordan Berry. Wing’s first punt was such an atomic bomb that I think the coverage team arrived late after admiring it. Archer did almost break his first kick return touchdown but leaned into it so far that he couldn’t help falling after 30 yards. Baby steps.

In the end, it was just a sloppy, underwhelming game, wholly appropriate for a preseason opener. In a way, I’m happy we have four more to come, because, even though that likely means an extended absence for all our marquee names, we obviously need the extra work. There are good or at least hopeful things to draw on and develop going forward. Tomlin has entirely too many performances to chew on this morning. I don’t envy his next steps. This game should have been an untelevised scrimmage, but we’ve already established the NFL doesn’t work that way. Researching and writing this article while watching it certainly helped me keep my head about me. Even made it slightly fun. Though I don’t intend to comment again on the preseason, I wonder if I shouldn’t keep detailed notes on every game I watch until the September kickoff. After all, we don’t need the fans in mid-season form before the players get there.

UPDATE: As if this piece needed one more weary sigh. Per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Suisham’s aforementioned injury was an ACL tear, likely season-ending, which I dearly hate. Historically dependable kicker, and never one afraid to throw himself into the fray in an attempt to tackle a returner. Somebody should’ve maybe reiterated his job was safe. Now, instead of providing camp “competition”, folks who a week earlier would’ve been no-hopers will be lining up to replace him. Behold, the NFL circle of life.

CORRECTION: My apologies to safety Shamarko Thomas, who I incorrectly called out a few times above in spite of the fact that, per Steelers.com, he will be seeing his first action of the year in our 8/14 game at Jacksonville. Keep making the inattentive pay, young man, whether they’re on the field or behind a keyboard…

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