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Thursday night the Steelers lost 25-10 on the road to the Carolina Panthers, completing a winless preseason for the first time since 2006. As expected, many Steelers starters including Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Troy Polamalu and Lawrence Timmons, got the night off. The team’s top two draft picks Jarvis Jones and La’Veon Bell along with running back Isaac Redman were ruled out earlier in the week due to injury. Like all NFL teams the Steelers will now have until 6 pm EST on Saturday to trim the roster from 75 to 53. Thursday’s night’s performance cleared up many of the remaining questions, but a few tough ones remain for Mike Tomlin and his staff. My 53-man roster prediction will be posted later this afternoon.
Similar to last preseason, the Steelers injuries this year seem to be concentrated at a few positions. Last year it was the offensive line and running back. This year it’s been corner, tight end and running back. The only reported injury from Thursday’s game was a hamstring pull to fullback Will Johnson. Hamstring injuries generally run anywhere from one to six weeks depending on severity. Johnson’s didn’t appear to be severe, but the team has yet to provide an update. Johnson brings a unique skill-set to the team as the only true fullback on the roster. I asked Mike Tomlin earlier in the preseason about a lack of depth at the position and he discussed the position-flexibility of the team’s tight ends. The problem is the tight ends as a group aren’t healthy and the running backs are dinged up as well.
Overall, the Steelers managed to get through the preseason with only one major injury to a player guaranteed to make the 53-man roster and that was the Lisfranc injury to backup tight end Matt Spaeth.
*Landry Jones, the first half. The Steelers fourth-round pick went the distance at quarterback and finally showed some of the skills that led the Steelers to use a fourth-round pick to get him. Jones showed good poise and composure on the opening drive behind the starting offensive line talking the Steelers 80 yards in seven plays culminating with a nice 13-yard touchdown throw into tight window to tight end David Paulson. He finished the first half 10-19 for 133 yards and a touchdown.
*Last week Derek Moye edged to the front in the battle for the fifth receiver spot with 3 catches for 41 yards. He helped himself again against Carolina with 2 catches for 55 yards. But what may have most impressed the coaches even more was Moye sprinting 50 yards and running down a Carolina DB after an interception. Not only did the 6’5” Moye show impressive speed, his effort was the epitome of “want.” I don’t know if the Steelers will keep five wideouts. If they do, Moye won his spot last night.
*When the Steelers acquired Felix Jones last week, I liked the deal as an insurance policy. It was low-cost way to protect against any further injuries in the preseason. Clearly the Steeler coaches looked at it as more than that and Jones has been a different back than the one that ranked fourth on the Eagles depth chart before the acquisition. Thursday he had 14 carries for 56 yards and ran hard all night. The Steelers signed DuJuan Harris last year at the end of the preseason and he carried 12 times for 45 yards, but there was no room for him in a crowded backfield. He went on to make the Green Bay Packers and start for them in the playoffs. Jones’ chances of making the team are significantly better than Harris’. When Mike Tomlin was asked after the game about the running back situation he singled out Jones as having “helped himself,” an unusually player-specific postgame comment from the head coach.
*David Paulson assured his roster spot with 4 catches for 41 yards. Paulson has not been as good this preseason as last and is severely lacking as an in-line blocker. However in the move tight-end role he is a good pass catcher and with David Johnson back and Kelvin Beachum able to play as a blocking tight end, Paulson can be utilized in ways that fit his skill-set.
*The second team offensive line was much better in pass protection this week. Landry Jones was only sacked once and generally the line held up after a couple terrible weeks early in the preseason.
*Landry Jones, the second half. One would think the halves would be reversed with Jones improving as the game went on and picking-apart the Carolina scrubs late. Not the case. Jones was awful in the second half, going 6-16 for 56 yards with 3 interceptions. Taken by itself you could question whether Jones should even make the team. Fortunately for him, his first half performance and fourth-round pedigree assure that he will.
*I’ve been squarely in Jonathan Dwyer’s camp all preseason. At 24, Dwyer is a young back with good size and feet and led the Steelers in rushing last season. But clearly the Steelers coaching staff is not enamored. Last night Dwyer ran for 28 yards on 6 carries, but he put it on the ground for the second time in the preseason. (He has two career fumbles in 200 career regular-season touches.) He did not see the field again and one has to wonder if that will be the last time he touches the ball as a member of the Steelers. He’s the most-interesting name here at the cutdown date for me.
*Markus Wheaton didn’t have his best night. The third-round pick has generally had a good preseason, but he had a couple drops last night on balls he should have caught. He did continue to show an ability to separate and I still think a 40+ catch season is in the cards.
*The Steelers run defense has been outstanding throughout the preseason. Thursday they limited Carolina to 79 yards on 33 carries, twice holding Carolina to field goals from inside the five, getting excellent penetration all across the defensive front. So many players were good in the run game it’s hard to single out individuals but both Alameda Ta’amu and Loni Fangupo did themselves a favor Thursday night, though neither showed up on the stat sheet.
*Last week I wrote:
If the Steelers want to go with youth at their backup linebacker positions several rookies continued to impress and made a strong case to at least be kept on the practice squad. 6th-round pick Vince Williams...always seemed to be around the football. UDFA Alan Baxter, an early camp sensation who didn’t do much in the first two preseason games, was all over the field Saturday.
Both were outstanding again last night and I think will make the team. Kion Wilson, Bryan Rolle and Chris Carter, 2 sacks, also did good things. This will be the most interesting position-group to watch at the cut.
*I’m guessing Curtis Brown and Damon Cromartie-Smith didn’t sleep well. Without seeing the film or talking to the coaches it is difficult to know exactly what coverages were called, but Derek Anderson and Ted Ginn hooked up for first half touchdowns of 35 and 87 yards. The two Steelers DBs looked lost on both plays and were easily beaten. The Turk looms.
*Including the two touchdowns Thursday night the Steelers allowed a surprising number of big plays during the preseason. One of the hallmarks of a Dick LeBeau defense is not allowing big plays. They will certainly look to correct that starting next week.
*The coverage units were solid, but we didn’t see much.
*Reggie Dunn was always a long shot to make the team although his speed and early efforts in the return game were certainly tantalizing. Last night he carried twice on reverses for 19 yards, but he had to see Derek Moye’s success the past two weeks and realize his chances were slim. With one last opportunity late in the game he took a risk fielding a punt inside his own 5. He gave ground and was tackled for a safety. Everybody in the NFL is fast. Reggie Done.
*Last week I wrote, “Brian Moorman may well have lost the punting job with his 31-yard effort at the end of the first half which contributed to the Chiefs late touchdown.” He got a reprieve and punting first last night, his first punt went 39 yards for a fair catch at the Carolina 27 and the second 55 yards into the end zone for a touchback. Moorman needed to win the job with distance control and hang time. He didn’t.
*Penalties were few.
*If the goal is to take a look at players on the special teams units why have your kicker continually kick the ball out of the end zone? Sean Suisham kicked off four times and three of them weren’t returned. Why not tell him to kick it down to the goal line and take the opportunity to see the coverage team perform? Makes no sense.
*The Steelers have to go from 75 to 53 by Saturday at 6 pm although I expect the cuts to be announced Friday afternoon. 8 players can be added to the practice squad starting at noon Sunday.
Big Officiating Calls:
*This officiating has been average at best throughout the preseason.
Up Next: The Steelers open the regular season at Heinz Field Sunday, September 8 at 1 pm against the Tennessee Titans.
Reminder: You can hear me and Tom Bradley on the postgame show on the Steelers Radio Network after every Steelers game. You can listen on the Steeler Gameday app, on Steelers Nation Radio on the iHeart Radio app or DVE or 970 ESPN in Pittsburgh. You can hear me weekdays on 970 ESPN from 4-7 pm and you can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.
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