It would be foolish to suggest all of the concerns they carried with them to Saint Vincent College when training camp opened on July 25 have been solved following a single preseason game against an opponent that finished 5-11 last year, because preseason games can do to coaches what a mirage does to someone wandering in the desert.
Still, there were a number of things to like based on what was displayed last night at Heinz Field, not the least of which was that the game didn’t end in a tie, which when it relates to an NFL preseason game deserves to be considered a crime against humanity.
No, the Steelers came within a missed two-point conversion of that dreaded tie, but when Ryan Griffin’s pass for Dare Ogunbowale fell incomplete, Pittsburgh escaped with a 30-28 victory over Tampa Bay. While it’s always better to win than lose, this game certainly will provide Coach Mike Tomlin and his staff with enough teaching points to carry the team through the final four practices in pads before the Steelers break camp and return to Pittsburgh.
It should come as no surprise that the highest level of anticipation had to do with the debut of Devin Bush, a player the team sees as capable of replacing what Ryan Shazier brought to the defense before sustaining that injury to his spine a couple of seasons ago in Cincinnati. Fast, athletic, instinctive, and smart, Bush did not disappoint while racking up 10 tackles and coming close to an interception in just one half of play.
“I was less concerned with his productivity and more concerned about his demeanor, and I really liked his demeanor,” said Coach Mike Tomlin. “He was present, it wasn’t too big for him. He handled the communication responsibilities associated with his job. He was alert and those were good signs.”
Clearly, the process that identified Bush as a Shazier-like inside linebacker and the decision to trade up 10 spots in the draft to select him were right on the money. Moving forward, it seems as though it’s only a matter of nurturing Bush, and Shazier, as someone who is totally involved with the team on a daily basis, is ready and willing to take on that assignment.
Two other things this camp/preseason period was to solve for the Steelers had to do with replacing the receiving production that now plays for the Oakland Raiders, and settling on one of the two recent draft picks to be Ben Roethlisberger’s backup.
For wide receiver James Washington, it has been about transferring the athleticism and production he shows in practices to the games. Against the Buccaneers, Washington was able to do that over a sustained period for the first time in his brief professional career. He finished with four catches for 84 yards and a touchdown, and if he cleans up his footwork along the sidelines just a tad he could’ve had a second touchdown.
In an interview with NBC’s Chris Simms a couple of days before this game, Ben Roethlisberger said, “There are some catches that went to Oakland that are going to have to get dispersed among a lot of guys. Not one guy and that’s going to be the thing, it’s not one guy who needs to pick up the slack. It needs to be everybody, and that includes me. Making sure every guy gets the ball and make sure I don’t try to do too much.”
Exactly where and how Washington will fit into “a lot of guys” is still to be determined, but this outing showed he deserves to be considered a part of that group.
Through the opening fortnight of camp, the quarterback not named Ben who was hogging the spotlight was undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges, even though conventional wisdom was that the bottom two-thirds of the depth chart here was going to end up being some combination of Joshua Dobbs and Mason Rudolph. But it was during those 14 days that Rudolph seemed to be holding onto the ball too long in drills where getting sacked wasn’t a possibility, and Dobbs too often looked to tuck the ball and take off running if his first read didn’t come open.
As it was, Dobbs completed 5-of-8 for 85 yards, and he was on the throwing end of that pass to Washington that was a bit of sloppy footwork away from being a touchdown. And on the two occasions when Dobbs did use his legs as a weapon, he gained 44 yards, including a 36-yard scramble that set up a 33-yard field goal by Chris Boswell.
Rudolph was appropriately decisive in the pocket while facing a live rush for the first time this year, and just as significant as completing 5-of-8 for 91 yards was that in his four series he quarterbacked the team to two touchdowns and a field goal. And both of the touchdowns came on his passes.
It’s likely that Hodges’ path to a roster spot would have to come from some combination of very good play by him and a significant step back by one of the two young pros, and while Hodges held up his end by completing 8-of-14 for 79 yards, with one touchdown, no interceptions, and a rating of 97.0, the regression by Dobbs or Rudolph didn’t materialize, at least not on this evening.
On the flip side, the Steelers will have to do a better job of situational awareness as they move closer to the start of the regular season. Two examples: during the stage of the game when the clock had become as much of an opponent as the Buccaneers, backup tight end Kevin Rader lost a fumble at the end of a 10-yard reception late in the fourth quarter when the Steelers were protecting a 30-22 lead; and then when a simple recovery of the ball following a strip-sack by Ulysees Gilbert on Ryan Griffin would have sent the Steelers into victory formation, defensive back P.J. Locke tried for the scoop-and-score only to fail at the scoop and have the fumble recovered by Tampa Bay.
Protect the ball. Fall on the ball. Making the smart play in a critical moment to help your team win is the way to earn a roster spot. Trying to do too much and failing is a sure ticket to the waiver wire.
More intense study of the game video assuredly will reveal more good and identify more bad, but right now we’ll close with these statistical facts: Boswell was 2-for-2 on field goals – from 33 and 47 yards – while Matthew Wright made his only attempt, from 42 yards.
Oh, and the game didn’t go into overtime.