Sunday, August 23, 2009

Defeated in the Primary: Steelers Lose


Last season, as we mentioned in our recent season preview for the Redskins, the Steelers went into Washington on the eve of the general election and thoroughly handled coach Jim Zorn's squad. Saturday night was a different story, however, as the 'Skins were able to defeat the Steelers in a sloppy game from both sides. Fortunately for Mike Tomlin's crew, just like the primary election doesn't mean much compared to November's vote, the pre-season is mostly insignificant when talking about meaningful games.

That doesn't change the fact that the Steelers need to improve in all aspects of their game. In fact, Pittsburgh's special teams may have been the best area for them in this second game of the pre-season - when was the last time the Steelers could boast that fact? The men from the Steel City faced an uphill battle, especially on offense, right from the start. Not only was Big Ben held out of the game following his achilles/heel injury suffered Thursday in practice, but regular starters Willie Parker and Justin Hartwig were both facing their first live snaps in actual game action, and Doug Legursky started at left guard.

Both "first-team" offenses had shaky first drives which extended longer than they should have - Washington had three consecutive incomplete passes before a fake punt landed them 15 yards, a first down, and eventually resulted in a field goal; the Steelers were also facing a "3-and-out" until they were aided by an unnecessary roughness penaly. Dick Lebeau's first-string defense finished off their night by forcing a couple quick punts, while Charlie Batch and "Fast" Willie led the starting offense to the game's first TD (capped off by Parker's 3 yard score) before heading to the sidelines for the remainder of the night.

While Batch may have led a solid scoring drive, he was mediocre at best for most of his time under center. His play, coupled with the performance of Dennis Dixon, whose stats are extremely misleading, should revamp the race for the #2 QB spot, which Batch had taken a strong hold of early in camp. The best players from the first units were Willie Parker (by default) and Lawerence Timmons, who had 3.5 tackles and deflected a pass in limited playing time. Once again, the new L.T. was all over the field, and showed why he should be a candidate for a pro-bowl selection for years to come.

I'm not going to lie to you - as I've already said, this game was really sloppy, and got really boring extremely fast. Some key reserves and other potential practice squad players made good impressions, but the overall team performances were a let down. With less than 3 weeks until the season opener, I expected a little more refinement from both teams. Dennis Dixon showed why he was considered a potential 1st round pick his senior year (before his knee injury), flashing his athleticism and ability to escape the pocket; meanwhile, Rashard Mendenhall, who averaged 5.2 yards on 5 carries, began to show why the Steelers took him in the first round last season. He had a much better burst toward the hole than he showed against the Cardinals last week, but he still didn't resemble the form he had last pre-season. He is getting to that point, and it seems to mostly be a mental hurdle at this point.

We're really excited about the group of receivers the Steelers have this year, as the depth will give Bruce Arians one of the deepest units in the NFL. Limas Sweed dropped another easy one, but made an exceptional catch to make up for it (get used to it folks - it's what he did all through college). Shaun McDonald led Steelers' receivers with 3 receptions - he's not fast, tall, or flashy, but he does everything right and hardly makes mistakes. Detroit made a mistake letting him go. Finally, Mike Wallace is F-A-S-T. He only caught a couple balls, but his speed is clearly evident. There were a couple replays that showed Wallace had blown past the defender and was open. He's definitely going to be exciting to watch. The only guy possibly faster than Wallace is Stefan Logan. He probably has about a 10% chance to make the team, but averaging nearly 40 yards on 4 kick returns will certainly help. He's shifty, quick, and sees the hole very well. If he has one more game like in Washington, the Steelers may have to carry one less RB or CB to accomodate him.

If the Steelers have good depth on offense, they have great depth on D. Additionally, a good handful of the backups could probably start on most teams. 2009 first round pick Ziggy Hood had 2 sacks, giving him 3 so far this pre-season. LB Keyaron Fox and CB/S Roy Lewis each had 4 tackles each to pace the defense. A few others stood out on defense for the wrong reasons. CB Joe Burnett, a fifth round pick this year, was beaten a couple times, including looking really bad on a jump ball in the endzone against a taller receiver. Also, this may be the end of the road for Bruce Davis as a Steeler. How a player so productive in college could do so little in the NFL is beyond me. He simply looked lazy, unmotivated, and unconditioned Saturday night. Finally, if you're looking for a surprise (yet unlikely) cut come the time to trim down the roster, look no further than Travis Kirschke. The veteran end looked unbelievably slow and unable to keep up with the rest of the defense most of the night against second and third string players.

The Steelers stand to see some major improvement, some of which will happen naturally once various players return from injury and see more snaps. The defense wasn't at its best, and still looked better than half the teams in the NFL when those teams bring their "A" game. The return units were a major plus, and the coverage teams were just as good. Overall, the Steelers will be in good shape, barring any significant injury, come September 10th against Tennessee.

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