Since I don’t live in Pittsburgh or Detroit and wasn’t interested in dropping 40 bucks on NFL.com’s preseason pass ($40 for preseason games? Really? That’s where we’re at now?), I listened live to Tunch and Hillgrove on the radio, and tried to not throw my laptop across the room as I waited for NFL.com’s Game Center to sporadically update.
So when I finally saw the replay Sunday morning on NFL Network, I was pleasantly surprised. I expected to see a first-team offensive line in full-on 2003 form, and Byron Leftwich reverting back to his brief stints in Atlanta and Tampa Bay. Instead of watching on in horror, I was left thinking that things could have gone a lot worse. Such are the benefits of setting the bar exceptionally low.
Yes, Flozell Adams got schooled by Cliff Avril a couple times on the speed rush. We already knew that was going to be a problem. More surprising was Chris Kemoeatu looking as lost as ever. But to my untrained eye, the o-line historically has been a much bigger concern much later in the season (by the way: JJ’s taking a detailed look at both the offensive and defensive lines, so check back for that). And it was nice to see the backups have some success. After watching Jonathan Scott lumber his way around the practice field last week, Wex actually tweeted something about Scott making him miss Tony Hills. This wasn’t a compliment, but Saturday night, Hills looked more than serviceable at left tackle, and he — along with left guard Ramon Foster and tight end Matt Spaeth — dominated the line of scrimmage during Isaac Redman’s one-yard touchdown run. Sure, it was only a yard, but last year, third-and-goal from the 1 might as well have been third and goal from midfield.
Some other random thoughts:
* Leftwich performed about like I expected: nothing flashy, occasionally inconsistent, Kent Graham-ian mobility, but good enough to handle the job for a month. Same for Dennis Dixon: also inconsistent, quick to run with the ball, and elusive in the pocket.
So after the two split most of the snaps against the Lions, I’m guessing the depth chart remains unchanged (even though I’m pro-DD). But something I was thinking about as I watched Dixon (and this is something Bruce Arians alluded to early in training camp): it makes sense to get him on the field as often as possible, particularly during the first four weeks of the season.
BA claims that the Wildcat isn’t an option (and he’s be saying as much for a year now) but that’s fine. Dixon is effectively a running back with a great arm — sort of the rushing version of Antwaan Randle El — and if Pittsburgh is going to emphasize the run early, there’s no reason to stick to the conventional “three yards and a cloud of dust” mentality when there are other, potentially more effective options standing on the sidelines.
I’ll be interested to see what the Broncos do with Tim Tebow against the Bengals Sunday night. Maybe they won’t do anything since, as Edmund Nelson reminded me countless times during the Steelers’ broadcast, TEAMS ARE VERY VANILLA RIGHT NOW, but there’s also a chance that Denver will have Tebow pick up right where he left off with Florida.
Dixon obviously doesn’t have Tebow’s size, but they’re both in non-conventional roles with special talents. Unless Redman suddenly morphs into Jerome Bettis (and at this point, comparing a chubby Steelers back to the Bus is like comparing a 6-6 small forward to Michael Jordan), there’s no reason to solely rely on Rashard Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore and the odd failed reverse with Mike Wallace or Randle El.
* Daniel Sepulveda took a turn as kickoff specialist during practice last week and apparently had some success. He didn’t get that opportunity against the Lions and Skippy’s kickoffs went as follows: to the 9 yard line, touch back, to the 2, the 16, the 1, and the 6. Some readers have suggested that a kickoff specialist is exactly what Pittsburgh needs, is worthy of a game-day roster spot, and could go a long way in solving one of the Steelers’ biggest problems: coverage. Sign me up. I like the new special teams additions: Arnaz Battle, Will Allen, as well as new-old faces like Keenan Lewis and Anthony Madision, but Al Everest could send out a coverage unit consisting of o- and d-line-only backups and if ROBO-PUNTER (or whomever) is regularly putting the ball out of the end zone, it doesn’t matter.
It’s funny: you get the sense that some coaching staffs underrate the importance of touchbacks in much the same way some baseball managers overrate the stolen base. Maybe the concern with Sepulveda is that his twice surgically repair knee doesn’t need the extra stress.
Related: as many of you know — and more of you probably don’t care — I’m a big Sepulveda fan and actually predicted the Steelers taking him in the fourth round of the 2007 draft (simultaneously my proudest and saddest moment as a Steelers fan and a writer). And while some folks hated the move (Eddie B. immediately comes to mind), I felt like a punter — similar to a kickoff specialist — was an integral part to a unit that most of us didn’t think much about until a returner for the other team was streaking down the sidelines headed for the end zone. That said, Sepulveda has struggled for most of his Steelers career, and when he wasn’t struggling he was hurt. So it was nice to see him booming punts against the Lions. It’s not much, but it’s something.
* It was a relatively insignificant play midway through the third quarter, but the Steelers offense faced a third-and-7, the Lions blitzed, Dixon took a three-step drop, and as his back foot hit the turf on the third step, the ball was out of his hands, a laser that hit rookie Manny Sanders in stride on a slant that went for eight yards. We’ve seen Big Ben and Hines or Holmes make that play in their sleep, but this was the third-team QB facing heavy pressure and a guy who was running routes in a wide-open SMU offense a year ago. One of the knocks on Santonio was that he wasn’t especially adept at reading defenses and making adjustments. No idea if Manny had to do either on that play, but it looks like he did. And if so: it makes a good play even better.
* And then there was Antonio Brown who looked a lot like Holmes — but faster — taking an innocuous pass across the middle (another perfectly thrown ball from Dixon that hit the receiver in the hands, in stride) and turning it into an 68-yard touchdown.
As fans, we’re perpetually worried about something — it’s just in our nature — but I have a good feeling about this group of wideouts. Hines is Hines and Heath is Heath, but the group of Battle, Brown, Sanders and Randle El (not necessarily in that order, but I’m expecting the least production out of ARE; I like him, but I watched most of him career in Washington and, well, the Steelers were right to let him walk after ‘05) are intriguing. And let’s not forget Tyler Grisham, the guy Bob Pompeani referred to as a “Wes Welker type” because, as best I can tell, he’s short and white.
All told, I thought the Steelers played slightly better than I expected, especially after first listening to the radio broadcast before actually watching the game. Clearly, there’s plenty to work on, but nobody suffered a serious injury, and as Tomlin pithily put it last night, “Good start for us. I stress that it’s just a start.”