Labriola On

Labriola on the end of the preseason

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Ready or not, here it comes:

  • The preseason is over. Yay.
  • The preseason is over, and the Steelers didn't lose any All-Pro players to injury for the entire regular season. Yay again.
  • Sure the preseason ended with three losses vs. just one victory, but for the kind of team the 2016 Steelers will be – one with a set of stars headed by one of the top five quarterbacks playing the sport – getting out of the past four weeks without any season-long hits to any of those stars is the biggest victory.
  • It has become trite to answer any and all questions about what's important to a team at any particular moment in any particular preseason with "staying healthy," but that truly is the primary objective. Coach Mike Tomlin will tell you that injuries are as much a part of football as blocking and tackling, but there just seems to be something inherently wasteful about injuries to significant players in games that don't count.
  • Injuries during this stage of the process also play havoc with the job of putting together a 53-man roster. As bad as they are, season-ending injuries in August have a finality to them that makes dealing with them a black-and-white situation. In that way, the course of action is clear-cut: find a replacement and move on.
  • But injuries not so severe that occur late in the preseason can throw a wrench into the forming of the roster, and the ripple effects can last almost as long as a season-ending injury. Against the Panthers last night, Anthony Chickillo injured a foot and Ricardo Mathews injured his neck.
  • In the immediate aftermath, neither of those injuries was being perceived as significant, but since both Chickillo and Mathews were locks to make the roster at outside linebacker and defensive end, respectively, and because the Steelers will need all hands on deck with the regular season opener in about 10 days, Tomlin and General Manager Kevin Colbert will have to consider the possibility of keeping another outside linebacker and another defensive lineman to fill out the ranks until Chickillo and Mathews can participate.
  • That extra linebacker and/or extra lineman will impact another unit, and maybe, say, that ninth offensive lineman can't be kept, and that 10th defensive back becomes too much of a luxury. It's difficult enough putting together the best 53, but when having sufficient numbers at each position adds to the degree of difficulty, the roster can end up with not necessarily the best 53 players.
  • And Tomlin admitted that nothing can get done until the health aspect is considered. "You have to assess the overall health of all of the people who participated in the game, because you can't make decisions without the health discussion. We have to get prepared to beat the Washington Redskins, and we need healthy bodies in order to do that. You don't have that discussion about the final 53, or who's available within that 53, without assessing the injuries from this performance."
  • Chickillo and Mathews used the preseason finale to show they can be assets to the Steelers' efforts this coming season, with the second-year outside linebacker contributing a sack and a couple of pressures to the pass rush against the Panthers, while Mathews is living proof that not all free agent defensive linemen from San Diego are worthless. That makes their injury status the glass-half-empty version of last night's exercise against the Panthers, but the return of No. 1 pick Artie Burns to join the same secondary containing No. 2 pick Sean Davis deserves to be seen as the glass-half-full aspect.
  • Burns had missed way too many practices and the first three preseason games with a quadriceps injury, but last night's game capped off what very possibly was his best week as a professional. During a Monday practice at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, Burns intercepted two passes. Against the Panthers, he broke up two passes at the goal line to force the Carolina offense to settle for field goals on each occasion.
  • Davis has been working throughout this camp/preseason period, both at slot cornerback and at safety. Where he ends up – at least early in his career – figures to be determined at least in part by where he's most needed, but while an imperfect player at both slot cornerback and safety right now, he still will flash and make a contribution. Such as a touchdown-saving tackle on a punt return by Damiere Byrd in the first half against the Panthers.
  • As it happened, neither Burns nor Davis, nor any of the other Steelers who took part in the preseason finale did enough to alter the outcome from the 18-6 Panthers victory that it ended up being. The loss gave the Steelers a 1-3 record this summer, which when combined with 2015's 1-4, 2014's 1-3, and 2013's 0-4, means the Steelers have a 3-14 record in their most recent 17 preseason games. Not good, certainly, but two of the previous three seasons ended up with spots in the playoffs, which indicates preseason record isn't necessarily an indicator of regular season competency.
  • Usually what a bad preseason record indicates is less-than-stellar play by the backup quarterbacks. When the Steelers were able to run Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch out against their preseason opponents' backups, they won a lot more times. In fact, from 2012 – the final season when both Batch and Leftwich were employed by the Steelers – until 2008, which was Leftwich's first season in Pittsburgh, the Steelers were 15-5 combined in five summers worth of preseason games.
  • Bryn Renner playing almost three full quarters for the Steelers against the Panthers and having been with the team less than a fortnight didn't do much for the offensive production here, but equally as culpable was the way the No. 3 offensive line made the Carolina defensive front look like the Steel Curtain.
  • In a game when both teams' play-callers were interested in keeping the clock moving, the respective running games were going to be important to the outcome. The Panthers backups made it work to the tune of 142 yards on 42 attempts (4.2 average), while the Steelers managed 63 yards on 22 attempts (2.9 average) and 26 of those yards came on one carry by Daryl Richardson.
  • Anyway, that's all in the record books now. The 1-3 preseason and the particulars that made it so, and then there also were some issues resolved in the days leading up to the trip to North Carolina to provide some clarity on the eve of the regular season.
  • First, the team manipulated some of the numbers on Antonio Brown's contract to get him more money in 2016 and also possibly create a little more cap room in case anything else might have a chance to get done before the start-of-the-season deadline for contract extensions. Doing something for Brown was the right thing to do, and Dan Rooney long ago established the goal of trying to do the right thing, as opposed to the popular thing or the easy thing. And getting that accomplished without the team having to blow up a policy that in most cases is the smart way to do business was a bonus.
  • Then according to the league's own news release, "The NFL found no credible evidence that Pittsburgh's William Gay and Green Bay's Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers were provided with or used substances prohibited under the NFL-NFLPA Policy on Performance-Enhancing Substances following a comprehensive investigation into allegations made in a documentary by Al-Jazeera America."
  • "No credible evidence." When you consider that it all came from a news agency that since has gone out of business, and it was reporting a "story" recanted a day after the allegations were made, why was it necessary for such a show of ultimatums from the NFL and such righteous indignation from the NFLPA about face-to-face meetings to come to that conclusion?
  • The Steelers addressed their No. 3 quarterback job by claiming William Gay off waivers from Tennessee. Healthier than Bruce Gradkowski or Dustin Vaughan, and with an NFL resume Bryn Renner cannot match, claiming Mettenberger is a low-risk solution for a team that believes in carrying three quarterbacks on its roster.
  • Make no mistake, Mettenberger was brought in to be No. 3, and even though he's 0-10 as a starter he does give the Steelers three quarterbacks with NFL starting experience on their 53-man roster. That's about as good as it gets in the NFL these days, especially for teams fortunate enough to have an established veteran quarterback as the starter.
  • The end of the preseason is pretty good, though, too.
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