Gene Collier: Finished product short of halfway



Halfway through this preseason, you might presume the Steelers are halfway toward presenting themselves as a finished product, and you might even be halfway right.

Ryan Shazier certainly looked to be on schedule against Buffalo Saturday night, assuming you mean on schedule for Canton.

In his first professional assignment, the Steelers No. 1 draft pick made tackles all over the lawn -- four on Buffalo's first possession, two on special teams, and three others -- and made a leaping balletic interception in front of Bills tight end Scott Chandler that he returned 27 yards.

One of only six players in the long storied history of Ohio State football to make 200 career tackles, and the owner of a school-record nine forced fumbles, Shazier bounced back spectacularly from a training camp injury -- a "boo boo" according to freelance orthopedist Mike Tomlin -- and looked very much like the full blown menace the Steelers figured he would be on draft day.

Similarly impressive were Ben Roethlisberger and his wide receivers, who gouged the Bills for touchdowns of 76 (Antonio Brown) and 16 (Markus Wheaton) yards, as the Steelers erected a 10-point lead after one quarter despite having the football for only 4:25 of the first 15:00.

All good, but there was plenty of bad in this second dress rehearsal of four, and a stiff dose of dumb as well.

It's only what the preseason is for, after all.

How many fans, for example, in their first Heinz Field outing of 2014, forgot that diapers and wipes are OK for admittance but diaper bags are strictly forbidden?

I'm guessing it was in the dozens.

Fan attire maybe wasn't in keeping with regular season standards either. One audience member showed up wearing the standard jersey in home black, No. 23, with the name above it reading, "PSALM."

That's right. Psalm 23.

And in that first quarter, the Steelers player who was wearing 23, newly acquired safety Mike Mitchell, was interpreting Psalm 23 in unprecedented ways, unless you're familiar with the one that goes, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not commit unsportsmanlike conduct. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures and leadeth me to the home sideline to be chewed out by Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau."

I must have missed that in the King James version.

The Steelers had just flipped a 3-0 Buffalo lead with Roethlisberger's slant-and-scamper to Brown, and Shazier had just made the second of his special teams tackles, when Bills running back C.J. Spiller was run out of bounds on the Steelers sideline after a short gain that would have set up a third-and-5. Some not-entirely-unpredictable jawing erupted at that point, and it looked like as though that was all until Mitchell arrived to deliver some of that veteran leadership the Steelers thought they acquired in the erstwhile Carolina Panthers safety.

One unsportsmanlike conduct penalty later, the Bills were at the Steelers 49. Two plays later, Shazier snatched E.J. Manuel's pass down the middle and ran it back to the Buffalo 37, but not before Mitchell measured the tight end well behind the play and flattened Chandler just for the heck of it.

More veteran leadership.

Even though Mitchell wasn't flagged for that nonsense, Tomlin was incensed. The head coach interrupted an impromptu LeBeau lecture and got right in Mitchell's grill, gesticulating purposefully, leaving little for interpretation.

Elsewhere in the secondary, mistakes were plainly evident, as when started left corner Cortez Allen got flagged for illegal hands to the face of Buffalo wideout Sammy Watkins, the fifth player taken in May's draft. Watkins left the field and did not return after what was termed a ribs evaluation.

"We missed a few plays here and there but as a whole I feel like we played pretty good defense," linebacker Lawrence Timmons said. "We played the line of scrimmage well. It's just a start and we're still trying to get better. We're still a long way from where we want to be."

Allen's indiscretion sustained a Buffalo field-goal drive, and Mitchell was called for a second penalty, this one for holding, which the Bills declined because they converted the third-down play anyway.

Veterans are obviously permitted a share of preseason mistakes in sharpening their skills as well, and Heath Miller took advantage of that with a dropped pass and then an 8-yard reception on third-and-9, still among the least-electrifying plays in football.

With the exception of Shazier, the most electrifying Steelers player was again rookie Dri (That's DREE as in DREE-mendous) Archer, whom Tomlin described in training camp as one of several "space football players," the Steelers have had over the years (a nice nod to the 45th anniversary of the moon landing, I thought). Taking a swing pass in space from backup quarterback Landry Jones early in the third quarter, Archer rolled 40 yards down the right sideline. It was his second reception of 40 or more in two weeks, so it looks as though he can play in the NFL.

Of course, you knew that, because last week he said, "I showed that I can play in the NFL."

With a good portion of these Steelers rookies, there's no such thing as halfway confident.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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