The Pittsburgh Steelers’ preseason opener Saturday night didn’t mean that much more than the last game the Steelers played at Heinz Field.
More than seven months after salvaging a little pride with a 24-10 win over the Cleveland Browns to close out the 2012 season, the Steelers lost to the New York Giants 18-13.
More importantly, they finally lined up against opposing players after months of offseason practices and took what they hope is the first step toward a return to the playoffs.
Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders most likely will need to have the best years of their career for the Steelers to play January football.
A lot will depend on the rest of the receiving corps, also. It’s too early to tell who will be joining Sanders and Brown when the Steelers open the season Sept. 8, but Saturday’s game provided some early hints, or at least some food for thought.
Hype Over Dunn?
Undrafted free agent Reggie Dunn has been one of the Steelers’ most ballyhooed offseason acquisitions. He set NCAA records with four 100-yard kickoff returns last season and five in his career at Utah. However, is it worth occupying a roster spot for a kickoff return specialist in this era of increased touchbacks?
In 2011, the kickoff spot was moved from the kicking team’s 30-yard line to the 35, and touchback percentages on kickoffs spiked from 16.4 percent in 2010 to 43.5 percent in 2011, according to ESPN.com. On Saturday, Dunn was on the field as a returner for three kickoffs. He caught two of them, but neither was returnable because they sailed through the end zone. The other was fielded by Kashif Moore.
Woods Carving His Niche?
Speaking of wide receivers and kickoff returns, J.D. Woods remains in the running as a dark-horse candidate to make the Steelers’ roster.
The Steelers aren’t used to seeing a No. 17 put his body on the line the way Woods did in the fourth quarter Saturday. The undrafted free agent from West Virginia took a kickoff nine yards deep in the Steelers end zone. Teammate David Gilreath appeared to put his hands up signaling Woods to take the touchback. But Woods is fighting for a job, so he attempted a return and brought it to the Steelers’ 18. He might have cost the Steelers two yards of field position, but that means nothing in August. He likely earned some praise in the film room for that as well as his two receptions from John Parker Wilson in the final five minutes of the game.
On the first one, Woods was upended by the Giants’ Laron Scott and managed to hang onto the ball after landing for a 12-yard reception. On the second one, he deftly kept his feet inbounds on a play that was originally ruled an incompletion but overturned on replay for a nine-yard gain.
Not a Good Night for Gilreath
Gilreath caught no passes and muffed a punt in the third quarter.
An undrafted pickup by the Indianapolis Colts in 2011, Gilreath’s name has appeared in transactions agate type plenty of times. He spent time with the Colts, Buffalo Bills and St. Louis Rams practice squads in 2011. He shuttled between the Steelers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012, playing in three games for the Steelers.
If Gilreath wants a more stable lifestyle in the fall of 2013, he needs to hang onto those punts.
Wheaton Makes Good First Impression
Perhaps the Steelers’ secret to drafting wide receivers is finding one with the initials M.W. in the third round.
More evidence is needed to validate the formula of drafting a Brown in the sixth round.
Markus Wheaton did some nice things Saturday, both tangible and intangible.
He caught an 8-yard pass in traffic on fourth-and-2 and gained 10 yards on a reverse. In the days before replay, Wheaton also would have had a 21-yard reception, but he was ruled out of bounds.
Wheaton also made a couple of rookie mistakes. He committed a false-start penalty and he rolled into Stevenson Sylvester’s ankle while throwing his body around on punt coverage.
At least Wheaton recognized what he did, tilting his head back in an “Oh, (insert four-letter word here)” kind of reaction.
Sylvester is expected back at practice later his week, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. So Wheaton’s name won’t live in infamy, at least not for this.
Justin Brown, the Steelers’ sixth-round draft pick in April, led the team with four catches for 32 yards. He was a security blanket for Landry Jones, his teammate last season at Oklahoma, on three of those catches.
Don’t get too excited about Brown just yet. Gilreath led the Steelers with four catches for 78 yards in their second preseason game last year.