Steelers take solid first step in preseason opener
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — NFL preseason games mostly are meaningless except for those trying to make a team, make an impression or make up for lost time.
Linebacker Sean Spence is trying to do all three, and he took a pivotal first step. Actually, a lot of long-awaited encouraging steps — in the Steelers' 20-16 loss to the New York Giants on Saturday night.
Playing for the first time since they ended a second successive 8-8 season nearly eight months ago, the Steelers saw just about everything they wanted to see: No major injuries, a big-play burst by speedy rookie Dri Archer, a Jarvis Jones sack and some powerful early running by Le'Veon Bell. Most of the offensive starters played one series. The defensive regulars lasted a couple of plays into the second quarter.
“Some positives, some negatives, some things to build on moving forward, and we'll do that,” coach Mike Tomlin said.
The Steelers didn't see much from Ben Roethlisberger, who was limited to two passes and one completion — a 46-yarder to Archer the first time the rookie touched the ball. And they didn't see Troy Polamalu (rested) and first-round pick Ryan Shazier (knee) at all as they were held out.
But hey, it's only the preseason.
But not for Spence — not at all. He didn't know nearly two years ago if he'd ever play again in the NFL — in a game that counted or not — after blowing out his left knee in a preseason game against the Carolina Panthers on Aug. 30, 2012.
Spence tore the ACL and MCL, dislocated his knee and, worst of all, suffered nerve damage. He was told the recovery rate for athletes wasn't good, and it would be a long, exhaustive comeback that might not necessarily be successful.
Linebackers coach Keith Butler said more than a year ago that it would be a “miracle” for Spence to play last season, and he didn't. He managed one in-season practice before being injured again.
But the third-round draft pick, expected to be a difference-maker when the Steelers took him, refused to think negatively. He made it through offseason practices, a minicamp and the first two weeks of training camp healthy, setting up Saturday night as the first big test of whether he could make it back.
Spence, starting for Shazier, made a quick impression with the first unassisted tackle of the Steelers' preseason. He finished with three and also played on special teams.
"It felt good, man, just to get back with my teammates and playing the game — the game of football, in a stadium, the lights come on, and the uniform. It felt great,” Spence said.
Spence dealt with emotional ups and downs for two years, but he said his game speed Saturday night was just the same as it was before he was hurt.
“It was very hard at times (to stay optimistic), having the injury that very few suffer from, and people not really knowing the diagnosis of it,” Spence said. “I'm just blessed to be with this Steelers organization because they stayed with me. They waited for me, and words can't explain it. I feel great.”
This was exactly what the Steelers wanted to see, even if it was two years late.
“Just to see his hurt (for two years) — you're out there playing, and he wanted to be out there with you and play with you,” teammate Lawrence Timmons said. “Just to see him go out there and have a piece of that, it was mind-blowing. I almost wanted to shed a tear for him.”
Archer, possibly the fastest player in team history and one his own teammates eagerly were awaiting to see in game action, didn't disappoint.
Archer showed his world-class speed — a hand-timed 4.18 in the 40 at the NFL Combine — the first time he touched the ball. After runs of 9 and 8 yards by Bell to start the Steelers' first drive, Archer caught a screen pass from Roethlisberger and bolted upfield before being dragged down at the Giants' 14.
The Steelers settled for a Shaun Suisham 26-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead. He later added a 38-yarder after missing from the same distance with rookie punter Brad Wing holding. He kicked a 32-yarder in the fourth quarter after a Howard Jones fumble recovery.
“We had a huge play to Dri,” Roethlisberger said. “We moved the ball down the field and got points on the board.
But the Steelers gave the lead right back in familiar fashion, a big play by the opposing offense.
Rashad Jennings, the former Raiders running back, broke up the middle behind a block by Brandon Mosley for 73 yards and a touchdown on the Giants' next play from scrimmage. Timmons was leveled on the kind of play that tormented the Steelers last season, when they allowed 11 plays of 50 yards or more.
“We had a guy get out of the gap,” safety Mike Mitchell said. “We have to continue to work it, be more disciplined and work our run defense. It's preseason game number one.”
The Steelers gave back the lead again, following Jones' touchdown, on Curtis Painter's late 3-yard touchdown throw to Corey Washington in the rear of the end zone with a clutching Isaiah Green in futile coverage.