It’s getting to the point where if preseason games counted, the Pittsburgh Steelers would have the No. 1 draft pick every year.
After going winless in the preseason last year, the Steelers opened the 2014 preseason with a 20-16 loss to the New York Giants Saturday night at MetLife Stadium.
The Steelers got through the game with no major injuries and the coaching staff came away with a somewhat clearer picture of the talent on the roster.
That’s all that really matters in preseason games.
Now that the Steelers have gone from the friendly fire of training camp to hitting players in different uniforms, here are five takeaways from Saturday’s game.
1. Sean Spence Will Make the Team
Few expected Sean Spence to step onto a football field again after he suffered a devastating knee injury in the final preseason game of 2012. He tore multiple knee ligaments, dislocated his kneecap and suffered nerve damage.
It’s enough of a miracle that Spence is playing, but he looks poised to contribute. Starting in place of injured rookie Ryan Shazier, the inside linebacker made two tackles and pressured Eli Manning into an incomplete third-down pass on the opening series.
Shazier, the Steelers’ first-round draft pick, is earmarked as the starter next to Lawrence Timmons. But Spence, who was taken in the third round of the 2012 draft, will provide valuable depth.
2. Martavis Bryant Will Give the Steelers Headaches
The Steelers chose 6’4″ Martavis Bryant in the fourth round to satisfy Ben Roethlisberger’s desire for a tall wide receiver. Bryant ran a 4.42 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, tied for fifth-fastest among all receivers. He has made some eye-popping catches during training camp, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Bryant showed how hard he is to cover by drawing two pass-interference penalties Saturday night. He has a ton of potential, but his development will come with some trial-and-error. He muffed a punt, which he recovered, and also dropped a catchable pass on third down with the Steelers trying to rally from a four-point deficit in the final two minutes. The real killer came on the next play, when on fourth down Bryant caught a 19-yard pass from Landry Jones, but fumbled the ball away at the Giants’ 27.
This won’t be an easy week of practice for the rookie.
3. Le’Veon Bell is Ready to Take the Next Step
Le’Veon Bell missed the first three weeks of his rookie season with a foot injury and averaged just 3.5 yards per carry in the 13 games he did play.
He showed progress as the season went on, however. Bell broke the 100-yard barrier for the first time in the Steelers’ 38-31 in at Green Bay in Week 16. He averaged better than four yards a carry in four of the last five games.
Bell must improve on his 860 rushing yards to revive a rushing attack that averaged just 86 yards per game last season. He looks ready to do that, carrying the ball three times for 18 yards against the Giants. He ran for nine and eight yards on the Steelers’ first two offensive plays against the Giants’ first-team defense.
4. The Steelers Lack Offensive Line Depth
New Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak won’t look like such a guru if the unit can’t stay healthy. Bruce Gradkowski and Landry Jones were on the run all night behind the matador protection of the backups. If it weren’t for their ability to escape the pressure, the Giants would have had more than two sacks. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Giants hit Steelers quarterbacks six times and hurried them three times.
The performance of Mike Adams at left tackle and Guy Whimper at right tackle was particularly unsettling. A second-round pick in 2012, Adams would be in danger of losing his roster spot if there was anyone to compete with him.
Chris Hubbard, a 6’4″, 286-pounder who was an undrafted free agent in 2013, replaced Ramon Foster at left guard when Foster was poked in the eye in the first quarter. According to Pro Football Focus, Hubbard allowed three quarterback hurries.
5. Markus Wheaton Must Do in the Regular Season What He Does in the Preseason
The departure of Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery leaves the Steelers in desperate need of a No. 2 receiver behind Antonio Brown. It could be Markus Wheaton, but he’ll have to make major strides in his second season to fill that void.
Wheaton filled the highlight reel Saturday with a 10-yard run on an end around and a 28-yard third-down reception from Bruce Gradkowski. Before we anoint him as the Steelers’ second receiver, let’s not forget how promising he looked in the 2013 preseason. A third-round draft pick in 2013, Wheaton caught nine passes for 139 yards last August. He led the Steelers in the preseason with 15.4 yards per reception.
Then in the regular season, Wheaton wasn’t thrown to until the third game and he broke his pinkie in the fourth game. He missed four games with the injury and caught just six passes in his rookie season.
According to ESPN.com, Wheaton is burning the midnight oil watching film during training camp. He’s no Limas Sweed. But we won’t know how much progress he’s made until the games count.
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