Ups And Downs Of Preseason Opener

Jarvis Jones post-sack (Elsa/USATODAYSports)

The Steelers didn't score an offensive touchdown, and their first team was gashed by a 73-yard run, but Jim Wexell found some positives.

From the notebook of a sportswriter who can report the good news that the Steelers suffered no injuries in their preseason opener, and the bad news that ...

* The offense didn't just sputter, it gurgled.

* Not that I expected much after Ben Roethlisberger played his lone series and drove the Steelers 70 yards for a field goal.

* Bruce Gradkowski quarterbacked four series and compiled 103 yards without scoring.

* Landry Jones quarterbacked six series and compiled 78 yards and scored six points.

* Jones' unit converted 2 of 7 third downs, and both were via penalty. And the field-goal drives were for 1 yard and 62 yards, the latter drive thanks to a 47-yard pass interference on an underthrown deep ball.

* Jones had a chance to rally the Steelers when his fumble on a third-down scramble was negated by a defensive holding penalty, but Martavis Bryant fumbled after a 19-yard gain on fourth-and-6.

* Gradkowski might be able to win games in reserve with the first team. Might. But taking command of a second-team unit in preseason games appears to be out of his realm.

* Jones is showing little to nothing. The Steelers are in trouble if Roethlisberger goes down. We haven't been able to say that since he entered the league.

* We could've said it last year, in retrospect, but that's when Gradkowski was still the guy who beat the Steelers for the Oakland Raiders and Jones was a rookie fourth-round pick. But neither has gotten much better.

* I know. It's early.

* The rest of the bad news had to do with the Steelers' nickel run defense. It was gashed for 73 yards up a wide-open middle by Rashad Jennings, when Cameron Heyward was blocked from his gap, Lawrence Timmons was held, and Sean Spence was blitzing off the far edge. That left Mike Mitchell, who appeared to be out of position, and Will Allen, who missed the tackle. Bye bye Jennings.

* Andre Williams gashed the Steelers' nickel for 17 yards on the first play of the second quarter, but this time the officials saw the Giants' hold. Soon thereafter the Steelers' second-team defense took the field and the stat sheet showed the first team allowing 105 rushing yards on 8 carries.

* Other than backup quarterbacks, the nickel run defense, Mike Adams' pass-blocking, and Shaun Suisham missing a 38-yard field goal, there were plenty of positives for the Steelers.

* The kick coverage, as expected with the depth at linebacker and safety, was outstanding, starting with Howard Jones. "HoJo" stopped the opening kickoff at the 18; Terence Garvin stopped the next one at the 27; Jordan Dangerfield stopped the third at the 18; Dangerfield and Vic So'oto stopped the fourth at the 19; and the final kickoff wasn't returned.

* The punt coverage may have been even better. It even led to three points on a fumbled return, in which Tauren Poole was all over the return man before Jones recovered the muff.

* Poole got down the middle of the field on the next punt to eyeball the return man into a fair catch. Earlier, Poole had made a tackle on the return of Brad Wing's 52-yard punt, and has certainly moved to the head of the second tier of Steelers running backs because of his special-teams work.

* I'm not privy to the assignments, but it appeared that defensive end Stephon Tuitt maintained his gap integrity throughout his four series of work.

* A question I had asked earlier this week about Bell's weight loss and resulting strength? Well, that was answered in the positive on his first two carries between the tackles for 17 yards.

* Officially, Dri Archer's first touch in NFL preseason was a fair catch. His first live touch was a short pass that he took for 46 yards.

* I thought it should've been a longer gain, that Archer should've punched into fifth gear around the last defender, as opposed to taking him on.

* Roethlisberger's red-zone receiving corps of Antonio Brown, Lance Moore and Markus Wheaton did not frighten the Giants, who smothered all three on third-and-3.

* Heath Miller stayed in to block on the play, even though the linebacker didn't rush.

* To Gradkowski's credit, he hung tough and took a brutal blast from Jason Pierre-Paul and completed a pass to Brown.

* Jarvis Jones sacked Eli Manning back at the Giants' 4-yard line with a heavy-handed punch and then a jolt to the inside. It was one of the best signs of the night.

* That, and Wheaton's end around for 10 yards and catch for 28 on a beautiful third-down post-corner route.

* Those two sophomores are big keys to the season.

* The back-up interior offensive linemen are another question, and one I'm not prepared to answer after last night.

* But I do believe the backup outside linebackers, Chris Carter and Arthur Moats, fared well, or at least well enough to calm the criticism on that front. They're not big, but both are plenty quick.

* A couple of reserve safeties turned in solid games. Robert Golden made back-to-back tackles late in the second quarter and Dangerfield played well in the second half.

* Is Allen in trouble? The coaches love him because he's a crafty veteran, so I presume they'll disregard Dangerfield on cut-down day. But Allen needs to shore up his tackling.

* Garvin played well, and maybe better than feel-good story Spence. Garvin was all over a tight end running deep down the seam on third down late in the first half. It held the Giants to a field goal and kept the Steelers within 13-3.

* That's what the "Big Safety" can do. As for the "Little Linebacker," Shamarko Thomas made the hit of the night when he blew up a running back catching a swing pass in the flat.

* Not sure who was worse in pass protection, Adams or Guy Whimper. I'll lean to Adams because so much more is expected from him.

* Josh Mauro played defensive end with the second unit, and the rookie from Stanford got beat once in the run game but two snaps later belted the Giants' quarterback and forced an incompletion.

* I was talking to another reporter during a practice about why Bryant is being used as a punt returner. The only answer I had was "maybe they just want him to track more balls." Well, they actually used the big rookie as a punt returner in the second half last night. It was butt ugly. Let's hope that's the end of the great big ball man experiment.

* The third-team defense entered with 3:00 left in the third and middle linebacker Jordan Zumwalt immediately made his presence felt. He made a tackle (for loss) on his first snap from scrimmage and finished with 5 tackles. His hit on running back Michael Cox in the open field was nominated for hit-of-the-game honors as well.

* Zumwalt's running buddy inside, Dan Molls, led the Steelers with 9 tackles.

* Zumwalt started the chain of events that led to the Steelers' only touchdown. He blitzed and pressured Ryan Nassib into throwing a lateral to his running back. The lateral was tipped by So'oto, who then doubled back for the loose ball after the Giants thought it was incomplete and had quit on the play. So'oto was beaten to the ball by Jones, who picked up his second fumble of the game and returned this one 28 yards for the score.

* So that's three third-team linebackers teaming up for the Steelers' only touchdown. Yes, it's going to be difficult saying goodbye to some of these guys.

* Can any of them play quarterback?

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