Between the Lines: Steelers postgame analysis
Byron Leftwich hands off to Rashard Mendenhall in the second quarter Thursday night. Mendenhall proved why he was the Steelers' first-round draft pick this year.
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Post-Gazette writer Ed Bouchette takes a look beyond the stat sheet and postgame comments and analyzes where the Steelers are after the final preseason game Thursday vs. the Panthers -- a 19-16 win. A look at some of the position battles and story lines 8 days before the season opener vs. Houston:
The Steelers rookie class did not distinguish itself over the course of training camp and four preseason games.
That could be reflected when they make their final cuts today.
Linebacker Bruce Davis should make the team based on the fact he was a third-round draft choice and not by what he has done on the field. He will go on scholarship as he takes time to learn the outside linebacker position after playing defensive end at UCLA, where he had 24.5 sacks the past two seasons. The plan to use him at times to rush the passer in the dime defense might be put on hold, at least early on.
- Game: 2008 season opener: Texans vs. Steelers.
- When: 1 p.m. Sept. 7.
- Where: Heinz Field.
- Blog: Blog 'n' Gold.
- TV: KDKA.
- Radio: WDVE-FM (102.5), WBGG-AM (970).
Tackle Tony Hills will make the team if they keep 10 offensive linemen. Otherwise, he could be waived and signed to the practice squad, thus continuing a failure of recent fourth-round picks for the Steelers. Among the fourth-round washouts were defensive ends Ryan McBean (2007) and Orien Harris (2006) and wide receiver Fred Gibson (2005). Each was released his rookie season, although McBean did make the roster Dec. 11 after he spent the previous weeks on their practice squad.
The only fourth-round pick to make it since cornerback Ike Taylor in 2003 was tackle Willie Colon, the first of two fourth-round picks in '06.
Fifth-round pick Dennis Dixon, on the other hand, is a keeper and could rise to the No. 2 quarterback spot within a year.
Their two sixth-rounders had trouble getting on the field because of injuries -- linebacker Mike Humpal and safety Ryan Mundy. And, of course, they did not have a seventh-rounder because they traded it away on failed return man Allen Rossum.
That leaves their top two rookie draft choices, running back Rashard Mendenhall and wide receiver Limas Sweed. Each showed why they were drafted so high, and they also showed why the coaches might be hesitant to use them when the season starts Sept. 7.
Mendenhall looks every bit the part of the runner that prompted the Steelers to select him as their first-round choice. Yet his three fumbles in the past two games will prompt coach Mike Tomlin to think twice before putting him in certain situations early in the season.
"Wouldn't it make you a little hesitant?" Tomlin said.
The same can be said for Sweed. He made the catch of the preseason when the 6-4 rookie leaped and snared Byron Leftwich's deep pass from the 32 in the left corner of the end zone over a defender. He held on and got both feet in bounds as he crashed to the ground. But the officials ruled his backside hit out of bounds before his second foot touched, and replay upheld it was no touchdown.
Sweed also dropped a pass when he was wide open. The coaches had hoped Sweed would challenge Nate Washington to become the No. 3 wide receiver on the field. Now it looks as though he could open at No. 5.
Veteran safety Tyrone Carter did not play on defense Thursday night. Usually, coaches have one of three reasons for not playing a veteran in the final preseason game: He's hurt, they fear getting him hurt, or he's about to be released. The latter seems more the possibility in Carter's case.
The fullback may have a smaller role in Bruce Arians' offense, but Carey Davis is more than a fullback and appears to be the team's best short-yardage candidate.
• Mitch Berger seems to have won the punting derby with his strong performance throughout the preseason and when Paul Ernster faltered on both his punts Thursday night.
• Anthony Madison continues to do the best job of all on the coverage teams.
What's with splitting the quarterbacks wide and snapping directly to the halfback? If I'm Ben Roethlisberger, I file an immediate protest. He's fair game if he lines up at wide receiver, and the Steelers appear to be fooling no one with those direct snaps. It's not as if it's 1995 and Kordell Stewart were back there and able to run or throw. Willie Parker's no threat to pass.
• The officials weren't on top of their game Thursday night. They called a ticky-tack 37-yard interference penalty on Carolina that helped the Steelers to their only touchdown, and they almost got another Steelers backup quarterback killed. Carolina jumped offside on a play late in the second quarter, and they let the play go even though the Panthers were unimpeded on the quarterback -- a play they're supposed to stop immediately. Byron Leftwich was thrown roughly to the ground on his right shoulder -- that's how Charlie Batch's collarbone was broken. Leftwich popped up uninjured.
• A few plays later, his own coaches almost got Leftwich killed when they had him throw a Hail Mary pass on the final play of the first half and he again was slammed after he cut loose with the ball.
Jeff Reed has become one of the clutch kickers in the NFL. He made eight of nine field goals the past two games, including the winners in the closing seconds of each. He also has new holders who have been alternating -- Berger and Ernster.
• No Steelers quarterback was sacked Thursday night, and as a bonus, none threw an interception, although Carolina's first defense did not play, either.
Before anyone gets too excited about the Steelers' 3-1 preseason record, the Detroit Lions went 4-0, the Miami Dolphins 3-1, the Indianapolis Colts 1-4 and New England Patriots 0-4.
First Published August 30, 2008 3:21 am