Some non-expert observations and unsolicited opinions following the Steelers 24-17 win over the New York Giants last Saturday night at the New Meadowlands Stadium:
- I'm telling you, this Tony Hills situation is getting interesting. After the preseason opener, when word trickled out that Hills distinguished himself against the Lions, it was a curiosity. After inconsistency plagued him through his first two training camps, it was tough to get overly excited about a third-year player who put together a decent performance in a preseason opener. But then came last Saturday night against the Giants, and now Tony Hills has posted good games back-to-back, and this time he was going against Mathias Kiwanuka, a considerable up-tick in the degree of difficulty. Apparently, some time during the offseason, Tony Hills became a finisher, because he buried Kiwanuka on a few different plays, and he did it without any of those other moments that give fits to coaches. If Hills keeps it up, well, there's nothing wrong with having another option at tackle.
- Ben Roethlisberger took another step by seeing his first action of the preseason, and for the casual fan, this was the game's primary interest. Especially so for the New York media, with five of the first six questions posed to Mike Tomlin in the postgame being about Roethlisberger. But there was nothing about it that was big news to the Steelers players and coaches, and anyone who traveled to Saint Vincent College to watch a training camp practice or two knows how well he had looked on those practice fields.
- It's not even fair to refer to it as a rookie mistake, because no rookie with any serious designs on making an NFL team would do something so foolish. On the fourth play of the game, a rather mundane 4-yard gain by D.J. Ware around midfield, Ike Taylor and Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks got into a scuffle that escalated to an exchange of punches. Both players were ejected, with 13:14 to play in the first quarter. Of a preseason game. "I should know better," said Taylor. "I apologize to my teammates, I apologize to the fans. I lost my cool, but it won't happen again."
*There are times every preseason when the veteran role players take it to the next level and do what's needed to make the roster. Nick Eason is one of those veterans, and his push to keep his spot was in high gear against the Giants. Eason has had an uphill fight this year, first because of the presence of Sunny Harris, but also because in late May an infected appendix along with an allergic reaction to medication plus enflamed bowels almost killed him. Literally, he almost died. He lost 30 pounds, and with it a lot of his strength and endurance. But Eason came to camp, passed the conditioning test and didn't miss a practice. Against the Giants, Eason had two tackles, including one for a loss, and he was looking like his old self, which is like a guy who's going to make the team.
- Mike Tomlin praised his players for rather penalty-free football in the preseason opener against the Lions, but he couldn't have done the same after last Saturday. Seven penalties for 53 yards doesn't sound like much, but a couple of the infractions happened at a part of the field where half-the-distance doesn't amount to much. Of more significance were what the penalties were: two personal fouls – one of which led to an ejection – a roughing the passer, two holds on returns and a pass interference in the end zone.
*The offensive line that included Hills, Jonathan Scott, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey and Doug Legursky was on the field for back-to-back touchdown drives to open the second half. Those drives went for 78 yards and then 82 yards for a combined 17 plays. Of those 17, 11 were runs that gained 83 yards and accounted for both touchdowns.
- Byron Leftwich's pass to Mike Wallace – a 68-yard touchdown but probably 60-plus yards in the air and right on the money – was a thing of beauty, and it shows what can happen if Leftwich has a pocket from which to operate.
*This was the situation: With one timeout left, the Steelers had a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line, but the clock was moving inside 25 seconds. Instead of spiking the ball, Leftwich tried a sneak but didn't get into the end zone. The Steelers called their final timeout. Then when a running play failed on third-and-1, there wasn't enough time to get the field goal team onto the field and so they ended up with nothing. After the game, Leftwich took complete responsibility for the sequence, but those are the kinds of things veteran quarterbacks should not do.
- Justin Vincent had himself a nice evening. He led the team in rushing with 37 yards on six carries (6.2 average), and he also made a nice block to spring Dennis Dixon around the end on a play that gained 22 more yards.
- Tomlin said he wanted to see better tackling in the second preseason game, and that really didn't happen. On a 75-yard touchdown drive early in the second quarter, Ahmad Bradshaw rushed for 21 yards, including a 9-yard score in which he appeared to be cornered only to bounce outside the containment. Later in the quarter, Andre Brown used a similar tactic on a 21-yard gain but that drive was ended by an interception by Joe Burnett. The Giants finished with 129 yards rushing, for a 4.3 average.
- On consecutive plays in the fourth quarter with the Steelers leading, 24-14, rookie inside linebacker Stevenson Sylvester sacked Rhett Bomar and then disrupted an attempted screen pass to force the Giants to attempt a field goal.
- The Ike Taylor ejection was inexcusable, and Taylor never shied away from his culpability in the matter. But also noteworthy was James Farrior's reaction when asked about it after the game. "That's a selfish play. You've got to think about more than just yourself. We need him out there. He understands that, but this one doesn't count. That's the good thing." This is why Farrior is a team captain.