After last week's preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons, Coach Mike Tomlin wasn't happy with the performance of the team's defense, and the players themselves weren't happy with the performance of the team's defense.
Then a couple of days before this third preseason game, Tomlin seemed to throw open the starting cornerback job opposite Artie Burns when he answered a question with, "I know that Coty [Sensabaugh] has done enough to merit consideration, so that's what this process is about."
Last night against the Indianapolis Colts, the process continued, and with mixed results. In a game the Steelers would lose, 19-15, the case could be made that an offense without wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and with Scott Tolzien at quarterback instead of Andrew Luck made too many plays and gained too much yardage and converted too many third downs against the Steelers. But on the other hand, the Steelers defense forced the Colts to settle for one red zone field goal, and Ryan Shazier personally ended another threat with an interception at the Pittsburgh 20-yard line.
As bad as it seemed, the Steelers defense had allowed only one touchdown and 13 points in a half in which the unit shot itself in the foot with missed tackles and a roughing the passer penalty.
"We gave up a 55-yard play on the first drive because of missed tackles," said Tomlin about the first half. "Missed tackles and penalties kill defense. We had a couple significant issues with that in the first half. We had a missed tackle that led to a big play, and a roughing the passer (penalty). Anytime that you have a roughing the passer, a 15-yard penalty in the NFL, that will produce a scoring drive most times, so we cannot continue to lose field position by self-inflicted wounds."
The missed tackle came on a short pass to Donte Moncrief, and as Burns was working to get him on the ground, Robert Golden came up from his safety position and delivered a blow that knocked Burns off the receiver and onto the ground. Moncrief got to the Steelers 8-yard line to complete a 55-yard play before Sean Davis finally made the tackle.
The roughing the passer penalty committed by Bud Dupree added 15 yards onto a 32-yard completion from Tolzien to Phillip Dorsett on a play in which Cockrell was in decent position but never was able to locate the ball. The 47 total yards gained on the play moved the Colts from their own 17-yard line to the Steelers 36-yard line.
The Burns-Golden missed tackle was the big play on Indianapolis' first half touchdown drive, and the penalty adding to the completion over Cockrell was the big play on a drive that ended with a 45-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri. That's 10 points right there.
"When you have those type of things, they are going to put scoring drives together, whether it's a touchdown or field goal," said Tomlin. "We have to stop doing those things. We'll keep it in perspective as we push forward and continue to work and hopefully use this outing as a springboard."
Tomlin's words seem prophetic, because for the first time this summer the players tabbed to be the agents of change finally were on the field together.
The most integral piece in this respect is Shazier, who is becoming the defensive equivalent of Ben Roethlisberger in that he can single-handedly erase a mistake or a series of mistakes with a big play. That's precisely what he did in making that interception on the second play of the second quarter, just when it seemed that a 7-0 Colts lead was about to become a 14-0 Colts lead.
Another heartening development came in the form of Cam Sutton's professional debut. A third-round pick from their most recent draft class, Sutton was perceived to be a guy capable of playing the kind of press coverage that might allow him to challenge for the starting job opposite Burns. But that was relegated to a rumor when Sutton was injured very early in the training camp process and didn't return to the field full-time until the Steelers left Saint Vincent College and returned to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
In his professional debut – mostly as a slot cornerback – Sutton finished with three tackles, including one for a loss, plus a pass defensed on a third down to force the Colts to punt.
"You know I thought that (Sutton) did a solid job in some instances," said Tomlin. "Obviously he's got a lot of ground to make up and next week is going to be huge for him. It was huge for him though to get out there tonight and get his feet wet and show that it wasn't too big for him in some instances."
And it's also fair to note that Dupree saw his first extended action of the preseason, and Mike Mitchell has yet to return after injuring himself during the "seven shots" drill on the first day in pads in Latrobe. Both of them are integral pieces as well.
So the process continues, and it should be expected to remain unfinished even as the regular season starts on Sept. 10 with a game against the Browns in Cleveland. And while there deserve to be some concerns regarding the defense's performance against the Colts, the return of Shazier and the debut of Sutton provide some silver lining.
It's still the preseason and this defense remains an unfinished product, but the Steelers are getting closer to having all of their tools on hand to give themselves a chance to get the job done.