Pittsburgh's pitiful preseason is cause for concern
The Pittsburgh Steelers showed little evidence in their four preseason games why they should be considered contenders in the AFC North this season.
They completed their practice schedule by getting shut out 10-0 by the Carolina Panthers Thursday, the first time in 22 years they could not score in an exhibition game. Coupled with last year's 0-4 preseason, it is only the second time they've strung together losing preseasons since they made it four in a row 1993-1996.
No one is panicking over the record and it seemed it was coach Mike Tomlin's intent NOT to show a whole lot in the preseason. They did so on offense for one game, their second, against Buffalo and little before or after. Their defense has not played very well at all.
It is the defense that raises some cause for concern because it has so many young players who have not yet done much -- or very much -- in the NFL. Rookie Ryan Shazier will become the first linebacker to start on opening day in 26 years. Last year's No. 1 pick, Jarvis Jones, had a poor rookie season but has at least shown some flashes in the preseason.
Even two of their better starters, defensive end Cam Heyward and linebacker Jason Worilds, have really only produced for half a season in the NFL last year. Other than Heyward, their line looks weak, one reason they re-signed end Brett Keisel, who turns 36 in September.
"There's a lot of work to be done," Keisel said after joining the defensive line for his 13th season. "There are technique things that need to be ironed out, there are mental assignments that need to be corrected."
Things should be different on offense, where quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will run plenty of no-huddle in the prime of his career and with a better line, better running game and, they hope, a good receiving corps. There is a sense in Pittsburgh that for the Steelers to win, their offense must carry the day, at least early in the season while the youngsters get their footing.
--The Pittsburgh Steelers kept six wide receivers and that does not count rookie running back/wide receiver Dri Archer. They kept five to start last season and just four to start the 2012 season. They have a mix of old and young with Antonio Brown smack in the middle of vets Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey and second-year man Markus Wheaton, first-year pro Justin Brown and rookie Martavis Bryant.
--New line coach Mike Munchak said early in camp he was lobbying to have nine offensive linemen rather than the eight they normally keep. They kept nine. Included among the cuts was nine-year veteran Guy Whimper, leaving Mike Adams as the only experienced backup. The only other backup there is rookie Wesley Johnson, a fifth-rounder who also backs up at guard.
--The Steelers underlined their belief that they do not expect any kind of suspension anytime soon for halfbacks Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount after they were charged two weeks ago with marijuana possession. Those two and tiny rookie Dri Archer are the only halfbacks on the roster.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--FB Will Johnson serves three roles and helped save a roster spot because of it. They normally keep four tight ends but since Johnson also can play there, they kept three. They also kept three halfbacks because Johnson can play that position as well.
--CB B.W. Webb, waived by Dallas, was claimed on waivers by the Steelers and is on their roster. He was a fourth-round draft pick of the Cowboys in 2013 and played at William & Mary, head coach Mike Tomlin's alma mater.
--LB Arthur Moats, signed as a free agent from Buffalo, is the only backup on the outside listed on their depth chart. However, ILB Terence Garvin also can play on the outside if needed.
--QB Landry Jones, a fourth-round pick in 2013, made the team again despite poor showings in practice and in preseason games for a second year.
--WR Darrius Heyward-Bey made a successful case for himself with some good special teams play to go with some good practices and games after he shook off yet another concussion and considered retirement because of it.
--WR Martavis Bryant has an ACL sprain in his right shoulder that could be significant. If it is, the rookie would be a candidate for short-term injured reserve.
--CB Shaq Richardson has a knee injury that kept him out of the final two games and is a candidate for injured reserve/designated for return.
--LB Jordan Zumwalt has a bothersome groin injury. He could be a candidate for injured reserve/designated for return.
--S Mike Mitchell left Thursday's finale with a leg injury. He had opened training camp with a hamstring injury.
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