Our long regional nightmare is over. After six tumultuous months that included allegations of sexual impropriety against the franchise quarterback (for the second time in as many offseasons!), and trading the 2008 Super Bowl MVP for a bag of balls and some practice jerseys, the Pittsburgh Steelers will play their first preseason game of 2010 against the Lions on Saturday.
Head coach Mike Tomlin held a press conference Thursday and addressed a bunch of topics, most of them personnel-related, in advance of Detroit coming to town.
* It sounds like rookie second-round outside linebacker Jason Worilds won’t suit up due to a lingering hamstring injury, which clearly means that Alonzo Jackson has taken over his body and his NFL career is doomed. I’m kidding, of course, but it is funny how, whenever a young linebacker struggles, he’s immediately slapped with the Alonzo Jackson red letter of shame. It’s the other end of the spectrum from “The Next Michael Jordan,” I guess, although Harold Miner (Baby Jordan!) might have had a more productive NBA career if people had compared him to, say, Sam Bowie instead.
Anyway, no Worilds. Too bad because the two things that make preseason football watchable are 1. making sure no one gets injured, and 2. seeing what the rookies might be capable of when the games actually count. Worilds already fails the first criterion, but hopefully that’s only a one-week deal.
* Tomlin didn’t say who would start at quarterback or whether Ben Roethlisberger would even play. As for the latter: fine. (See 1. above, plus, whether Ben plays a meaningless Week 1 preseason game or not, he’ll still be rusty six weeks from now. No point in letting him play a series when you know on at least a few snaps he’ll hold the ball for at least seven seconds to “make something happen” only to get knocked silly. It’s just not worth it.)
Regarding the former: I’m on record as pro-Dennis although I’ve accepted the fact that it’s Byron’s job. In fact, Wex tweeted earlier today that, “As I plow thru tape of Tomlin PC, find it humorous how many reporters are buying notion that QB competition’s open to anyone but Leftwich.”
I never got that sense, but I haven’t really been paying attention to the quarterback competition, either.
* It sounds like the starters will get “8-12″ snaps and rookies can expect around 35. Again, the first priority is praying everybody comes out of the game healthy, but my primary focus with the first-teamers will be watching Flozell Adams. Honestly, unless he’s a complete disaster (think 2003 o-line, Todd Fordham in particular), I don’t expect Adams to be much of a dropoff from Willie Colon. I know, they’re different players with different strengths, but let’s not pretend that Colon was the missing piece to a Pro Bowl front five.
I’ve long since accepted the fact that this unit is mediocre, but you can’t have everything (where would you put it?). The Steelers excel at certain things — passing the ball, run defense — and fail in other areas — special teams coverage, Polamalu-less defense, pass protection. (I know, I know — a lot of the pass-pro issues are on the quarterback. Fine. I willingly concede that and still assert that the o-line is, in general, pretty horrible.)
* As for the rookies to watch … well, all of them.
(Another great thing about preseason: other than an inexperienced offensive lineman potentially getting a quarterback killed, there’s not much downside to letting rookies play. On the other hand, if it’s the regular season and, say, Joe Burnett drops an easy pick against the Raiders or gets a stupid late-hit penalty against the Packers, you have every right to yell at your television for somebody to get him off the field.)
At the top of the list: Jonathan Dwyer. Partly because he had such a swell spring and followed it up by allegedly gaining 20 pounds before training camp and spending the first week nursing a sore hammy before suffering the wrath of Tomlin and Kirby Wilson. Wex is convinced Dwyer makes the team but a solid showing in the coming weeks will quell the “Hey, Free Willie Parker might be back in Pittsburgh if the ‘Skins cut him.” Yes, I wrote that it wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen because — you knew I’d work this in somehow — running backs are fungible, but all else equal, I’d prefer to watch a young guy like Dwyer get the nod over an old-timer like FWP who’s best days are in the rearview.
Plus, it would give me one more name to point to whenever the draft-day naysayers bust out the “Kevin Colbert has a dreadful track record with late-round picks!” argument.
Other youngsters that intrigue me: Manny Sanders and Antonio Brown (or, as Tomlin called him, Antonio Bryant). I’m hoping Sanders wins the slot job coming out of camp just because I can’t stand the thought of announcers informing me that Antwaan Randle El has some of the best hands on the team as he drops another pass. I like the guy, but can we please dispel that myth? It also sounds like that against the Lions Sanders will only return kickoffs and Brown will only return punts.
On that topic, Tomlin also said this about Stefan Logan, in response to the question: “How has Logan developed as a receiver?”
“I kind of stifled that development somewhat because of the many things we’ve asked him to do. He spent the vast majority of the offseason working as a running back. This is a guy with a unique skill set, in terms of the ability to break people down in open grass. We’ve been very fluid in how we’ve aligned him and put him in situations to find that open space. For a guy that’s never played the position, he’s grown by leaps and bounds. … We like what he’s done. But he’s going to make this team or not make this team based on what he does as a kick returner.”
Some fans and media members seem down on Logan but I never got that. Compared to those that preceded him in recent years, Logan’s effort in 2009 was Pro Bowl-worthy by comparison. Overstating it a bit, sure, but still: along with Skippy, Stefan was the least of Pittsburgh’s special teams worries.
I’m also eager to see what Maurkice Pouncey can do without Tim Tebow, who obviously made him the player he is today. It sounds like Tomlin plans to use him at guard and center Saturday, and I expect to come away from the game thinking that Pouncey playing both C and RG simultaneously would have been a better option for the Steelers than going with Sean Mahan and Kendall Simmons in 2007.
* And finally: here’s to hoping Keenan Lewis, Joe Burnett and/or Crezdon Butler go nuts if for no other reason than to avoid reading mail-ins like this anytime soon.