By BOB LABRIOLA
As Thursday night melted into the wee hours of Friday morning, the Steelers' preseason opening 20-10 win over the Arizona Cardinals was a raging success. The Steelers won, the weather was perfect, no players were taken off on carts, the crowd of 58,330 seemed to have a good time and the playing surface was as green and lush as Amen Corner at Augusta National.
How the game is judged in the harsh light of day – or more accurately in the darkened rooms where the video is examined – might tell a different story.
"We had some guys who made plays inside stadiums for us, and it was enough for us to win," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "From that standpoint it was good, but by no means are we going to wear our hands out patting ourselves on the back. We have a lot of work here in front of us, and we will continue to work on our football team to build for the 2009 season."
It's pretty much standard coaching procedure to throw wet blankets anywhere where optimism runs rampant at this stage of the preseason, especially where it might involve young players. Tomlin was ready with the wet wool as soon as he opened his postgame media session to questions.
Limas Sweed, the 2008 second-round draft choice who distinguished himself as a rookie primarily through the plays he didn't make when given the opportunity, is someone the Steelers hope to be able to count on for more positive contributions in 2009. With Nate Washington having left via free agency, the roles in the offense behind starters Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes are wide open, and Sweed has a lot of the necessary skills to be the guy sent onto the field whenever the Steelers deploy three receivers.
Against the Cardinals, Sweed's line showed two catches for 56 yards, but there is a story beyond those numbers. His first catch came on a third-and-10 in which he went up in a crowd and came down with the 11-yard reception by pinning the ball against the back of Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby's helmet. His second reception came later in the first half when he streaked past cornerback Michael Adams and then adjusted nicely to Charlie Batch's pass and again came down with the ball for a 45-yard gain. On the flip side, Sweed also appeared to drop a second-half sideline pass and on another occasion he misjudged the flight of another long pass down the sideline.
"Really, it was what we expect from him," said Tomlin. "We are not going to be pleasantly surprised by production from that young man, or any of them for that matter. There is a standard of expectation around here, and we expect them to exceed it. I thought that he did a pretty good job tonight."
The next question was about Isaac Redman, the undrafted rookie running back who first made an impression at training camp with his blocking in the backs-on-backers drill and then opened a few more eyes by scoring twice at the end of the first goal-line drill. Against the Cardinals, Redman scored two more touchdowns – from 3 and 5 yards – and finished with 32 yards on 10 carries, all in the fourth quarter, which in the preseason opener means against the bottom of the depth chart.
"It was relative," said Tomlin when asked to assess Redman. "Hopefully we will get some more looks at him against some varsity guys, if you will. He did a nice job with what he was faced with tonight. We are not going to make too much out of it. We will continue to work and move forward."
As for some of the other rookies, Ziggy Hood, Mike Wallace and Joe Burnett each did some things during the game that contributed to the win.
Hood had a couple of pressures on the quarterback, one of which caused a hurried, off-balance throw by Brian St, Pierre that Burnett intercepted and returned 42 yards to set up Redman's first score.
In addition to the interception, Burnett also showed some savvy as a punt returner. He correctly made a fair catch at the 9-yard line, didn't signal for a fair catch and made a block that allowed another punt to get into the end zone for a touchback and returned one for 13 yards. On another return, however, Burnett ran into a teammate and fumbled, but Mike Wallace recovered.
Speaking of Wallace, his only chance to return a kickoff went for 35 yards. As a receiver, he caught two passes for 35 yards, both of which converted third downs, and he ran past the coverage only to have the ball underthrown and batted away.
With Willie Parker sitting out the game with the remnants of back spasms that flared up earlier in the week, Rashard Mendenhall was the starting halfback. On the second quarter possession that ended with a 50-yard field goal by Jeff Reed, Mendenhall had three carries for 17 yards and showed some nice decision-making in terms of when to bounce outside and when to hit it up between the tackles. But outside of that, the second-year pro found tough-going against the Cardinals defense.
"I thought he made some nice runs," said Tomlin, who then added, "I would like to see us control the line of scrimmage a little better as a unit."
Another second-year pro – quarterback Dennis Dixon – was at the helm for 17 of the team's 20 points. He completed 10-of-19, but he was 6-for-11 on third downs, 7-for-12 including one play wiped out by a penalty for illegal formation. Dixon's passes converted a third-and-10, which became a third-and-15 after the penalty that he converted as well, a third-and-6 and a third-and-11. Another third-down pass was dropped.
"He had some good moments and he had some moments where you would like to see him make a few more plays. I thought we had a couple guys deep down the field on some play actions that you would like to see one or two connected on. I liked his presence and I thought he handled the group very well. We had a delay of game in there."
As for the rest, well, that will be left for the video to determine.
"For the most part," concluded Tomlin, "like I characterized to the team at the beginning of this, I thought it was an acceptable beginning for us and something we can build upon and use to move forward."
A win to be used as a teach tool with no serious injuries. That's the definition of a successful preseason opener.