Steelers show as much good as bad in preseason opener
An extended look at the starting offense. An unexpected look at LaRod Stephens-Howling with the starters. No look at all at Le'Veon Bell.
The Steelers didn't like all there was to see of their 18-13 preseason loss to the New York Giants at Heinz Field on Saturday night — the first punt of Danny Smith's tenure as special teams coach was blocked, and a punt was later fumbled away — but there were plenty of surprises.
“There were some positives and some negatives,” coach Mike Tomlin said.
The good: Stephens-Howling, expected to be a situational back, ran seven times for 40 yards and led a 13-play drive late in the first quarter that ended with a Shaun Suisham 34-yard field goal. The starters wound up playing 18 plays, or one-third more than the 12 that Tomlin projected.
“He has great vision, and he got outside and made some plays,” center Maurkice Pouncey said of Stephens-Howling, a former Pitt player from Johnstown.
Even as the 5-foot-7 Stephens-Howling bounced those runs outside, the Steelers used their new zone-blocking system only twice during the starters' nine running plays.
“We wanted to establish an identity early of running the ball, and I think I did a good job with that,” Ben Roethlisberger said.
The bad: Bell, the second-round pick who already looks to be the front-runner to start the Sept. 8 opener at running back, was held out with a previously undisclosed left knee injury only two days after Tomlin said he would get carries with the starters.
“He was a little sore and slowed during the week,” Tomlin said. “I didn't feel comfortable playing him because I didn't like what I saw Friday. He's going to be fine. I just didn't want to start his career out in less-than-ideal circumstances from a health standpoint.”
Bell insisted he's all right.
“I'm just resting it, to make sure I don't come into the game and hurt it anymore than it was,” he said.
“My knee is fine, and I'll go back to work Monday and get back to practice.”
More bad: The offense settled for two field goals in the first half with Roethlisberger and backup Bruce Gradkowski at quarterback rather than getting into the end zone — a problem offensive coordinator Todd Haley is on record of wanting to fix.
Both times the Steelers found themselves in third-and-relatively-long and couldn't convert.
The good: First-round pick Jarvis Jones recovered a David Carr fumble on his first series, and the Steelers turned that into a second Suisham field goal, a 41-yarder.
“He's doing some nice things, but we have to get more looks at him,” Tomlin said.
The bad: Cornerback William Gay, back with the Steelers following one season as a Stephens-Howling teammate in Arizona, was beaten by Victor Cruz on a 57-yard touchdown pass late in the first quarter that put the Giants up, 10-3.
New York took a 3-0 lead on a Josh Brown 23-yard field goal that resulted from Damontre Moore's clean block of a Drew Butler punt.
More bad: DaMon Cromartie-Smith left a wide-open rush lane for Moore.
“Too many mistakes,” Tomlin said.
“Obviously we had some poor judgment in the kicking game. We had a punt blocked. That can't be winning football.”
In the second half, David Gilreath fumbled away a punt for the second major special teams mistake of the night. But linebacker Adrian Robinson, among a crowded group at outside linebacker, recovered a botched snap in the end zone for a touchdown.
“I don't want to leave here,” Robinson said. “I don't know where I'm at, but hopefully I'm somewhere up top where I'm going to be with the team.”
The unusual: Outside linebacker Jason Worilds, trying to beat out Jones to be James Harrison's replacement, played the entire first half, something a starter almost never does in the first preseason game. He started at right outside linebacker, then switched to the left side when Jones came in.
Wide receiver Markus Wheaton, another of the Steelers' deep rookie class, made an 8-yard catch for a first down on fourth-and-2 and also ran 10 yards on a reverse. But, typical of a rookie, he also drew a false-start penalty and appeared to line up incorrectly on another occasion, forcing a timeout.
Roethlisberger went 4 of 8 for 36 yards. He found Brown open near the goal line on what would have been a 20-yard touchdown, but Brown could get only one foot down inbounds.
“I need to be in control of my body on the sidelines,” Brown said.
Gradkowski completed 6 of 11 for 35 yards before being replaced in the third quarter by Landry Jones, the Oklahoma rookie who has been less than impressive during camp. Jones, backed up to his own 4-yard line, promptly was dropped for a safety by Tyler Sash after colliding with Baron Batch on a fumbled handoff.