Ron Cook: Steelers had positives, but none brighter than the end of preseason



There is one good thing to say about the Steelers' final exhibition game Thursday night: It's over.

It's no wonder NFL owners want to go to an 18-game regular season and eliminate two preseason games. The exhibition season is interminable, the fourth game usually unwatchable. So it was with the Steelers' 10-0 loss Thursday night to the Carolina Panthers at Heinz Field. It's almost criminal that the Steelers and the other NFL clubs get away with charging regular-season prices for these charades. Attendance was 43,514 Thursday night, which means nearly 22,000 people paid for their tickets and elected to stay away. They made a smart decision.

I would like to go on record as saying I support former Aliquippa, Pitt and NFL star Sean Gilbert in his candidacy for executive director of the NFL Players Association. Part of his platform for ousting current director DeMaurice Smith involves pushing for the 18-game regular season. Now there is a clear thinker.

The only important thing to come out of the game Thursday night was the Steelers injury report. Martavis Bryant (shoulder), Mike Mitchell (leg) and Brice McCain (groin) left early, although none is believed to have a serious injury. Ryan Shazier also called it an early night with what appeared to be rib discomfort, but that seemed to be a precautionary move.

That means the Steelers made it through the preseason without an injury to a major player. Everybody, including starters Jason Worilds, Cam Heyward and Lance Moore, who sat out against the Panthers with minor injuries, is expected to be ready for the opener Sept. 7 against the Cleveland Browns.

"It is a blessing when [the injuries] are minimal," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. He went on to say he likes where his team is. "I do. We're very much still a team in development."

None of the positives of the game involved the Steelers offense. It's hard to be shut out in any game, but the Steelers pulled it off. They figure to be much better when Ben Roethlisberger plays against the Browns. On this night, they were led by third-stringer Landry Jones for 2½ quarters.

"I thought he did some good things, but not enough. We didn't score," Tomlin said.

Steelers management likes having three quarterbacks, but wouldn't an extra special teams player be preferable? We will see when the cuts are made by 4 p.m. Saturday.

Jarvis Jones, Brett Keisel and Daniel McCullers stood out. I know, Jones with his hair, Keisel with his beard and McCullers with his massive body always stand out. But the three men were noticeable Thursday because of the plays they made. That was encouraging for a defense that was embarrassed by the Philadelphia Eagles in the third exhibition game.

Jones made his first impact at outside linebacker since he had a sack in the first exhibition game against the New York Giants. He tackled running back Mike Tolbert for a 1-yard loss on a third-and-1 play, and stopped Fozzy Whittaker for no gain on another play. Jones also recovered a fumble when center Fernando Velasco -- yes, the former Steeler -- snapped the ball over quarterback Derek Anderson's head. Jones did miss a tackle on a 13-yard screen pass to receiver Jason Avant, but, hey, who is perfect?

Keisel started at defensive end and played the first three series. His best play came when he hit Anderson as he threw, forcing an incompletion. The crowd loved that. Keisel is a fan favorite, one of the team's most popular players since the Super '70s days.

It might have been most fun watching McCullers, who is listed at 6 feet 7, 352 pounds. You might remember a bigger man to play for the Steelers, but I can't. Casey Hampton used to move well for a big fellow. Well, how about McCullers chasing down running back Michael Zordich and tackling him for no gain? And how about him plugging the hole and smothering Whittaker with his enormous left arm and stopping him for a 1-yard gain? He will make the team. Maybe, just maybe, he will grow into -- pardon the choice of words -- the nose tackle the Steelers have needed to anchor the run defense since Hampton, appropriately nicknamed "Big Snack," retired.

I'm guessing McCullers couldn't wait for the game to end so he could grab a late dinner. I know I had my reasons hoping for it to come to a merciful conclusion.

Enough of these nonsensical exhibition games.

Let the regular season begin.

It can't get here soon enough.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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