The young players trying to make a name for themselves took a good step in the right direction in Sunday nights victory over the Colts, 26-24. It was far from perfect but it was an improvement after the lackluster performance against the Eagles in week 1. Mike Tomlin said before the game that he wanted to see some players begin to separate themselves, and that message was apparently received loud and clear as there were a few standouts on Sunday evening at Heinz Field. As always it’s preseason, but that’s what these games are for, to learn about what type of reserve players you’ll have and who wants it the most.
When your head coach is asked about the 2nd tier receivers and his response is “it depends on the day”, you know your days are numbered if you’re in that group unless you do something about it. Scottie Montgomery, Wide Receivers Coach and Todd Haley wanted to see what David Gilreath could do if given the chance and he responded with 4 catches for 78 yds. The highlight was a 41 yd reception that converted a key 3rd down and showcased his ability to catch the ball in traffic and evade tacklers. At 5’10″ 170 lbs, he’s not exactly going to pull off the role as the big, tough receiver but he’s got good speed and learning with each passing week what he’s capable of doing. Gilreath is fighting it out with a host of reserve receivers all vying for what will be 1 or 2 roster spots at the most when final cut downs finally happen.
Jerrod Johnson had much to improve on after week 1, granted not all of it was his fault as the protection was not good, but still you are judged on what you do in preseason. He stepped up his game when he took over in the 4th quarter, going 4/5 for 65 yds and rushed 3 times for 11 yards. While he didn’t throw any touchdowns he lead a late rally with about 5 minutes to go, driving the offense to the Colts 1 yd line and allowing Daniel Hrapmann to kick the game winner with about 20 seconds left on the game clock. His accuracy was obviously much improved but the highlight was late in the game when audibled to a run play when he saw the defense with a gap in the middle, allowing Chris Rainey to sneak into the second tier of the defense and keep the clock running. Those types of things are what the coaches love, players being aware of the situations in front of them and being able to adapt on the fly. Johnson will get another chance in week 3 but it likely won’t be until the 4th quarter again because the Ben Roethlisberger and the starters will play the entire first half against the Bills and possibly into the 2nd half a bit. Tomlin will give Johnson every opportunity to succeed that he can,and if he has a couple more games like this one it’s going to make that 3rd QB decision a bit more difficult for the coaches.
Andre Robinson is making his bid for backup outside linebacker and while he only registered 1 tackle, he was routinely able to drop back in pass coverage and stay on his man, forcing the Colts Quarterbacks to look elsewhere. He also was getting a bit more push in his pass rush, forcing a ball carrier back inside into the waiting arms of his teammates, or the backup QB’s of the Colts to evade his rush.
Jonathan Dwyer was the leading rusher of the game, and played mostly in the first half. He finished up with 8 carries for 43 yds, but it was the way he was running that was most impressive. He showed good balance and nimble feet to break out of tackles. He’s looking lean and powerful, and while it’s still only preseason he’s looking to secure that backup role to Isaac Redman (who did not play in the game).
Mortty Ivy blocked a punt in the 3rd quarter, allowing the Steelers to take over inside the redzone. Ivy, like Robinson, was showing good coverage skills and closing speed while in coverage. Any time you can make splash plays like that it keeps you in the mind of the coaches for the right reasons rather than the wrong ones.
The backup running backs, Baron Batch, Jason Ford, and Chris Rainey combined for 21 carries for 81 yds. Each was able to showcase their abilities and place their bid for a roster spot. Rainey was impressive with his between the tackles running and blitz pickup. For a 180 lb guy taking on a 260 linebacker, that’s quite a feat. Batch also ran hard and got the bulk of the work in the late second quarter and 3rd quarter. At 210 lbs he’s got a bit more size to him than Rainey and his blocking ability might be what sets him apart come final cutdowns.
Jason Ford was the reserve Running Back story of the night though with 8 carries for 42 yds. NBC analyst Chris Collinsworth likened him to a “mini bus”, referring of course to the great Jerome Bettis. He did remind you of #36 in that he’s got huge legs and a low center of gravity on his 5’10″ frame. At 251 lbs he definitely the biggest back on the roster, but with Redman and Dwyer both in the power back role, he’s got an uphill battle to fight.
After a not so impressive opening to the preseason, the Steelers looked much better Sunday night. Still there are issues to work through like redzone efficiency, dropped passes, and missed tackles but overall some young guys started to separate themselves just a bit and that’s what you love to see.