Thursday, August 28, 2014

Post-Panthers thoughts

Instead of posting a bunch of random thoughts in this space, I'm going cut the roster as I see it prior to Saturday based on what I've seen in the preseason, training camp, etc.

Quarterbacks: (2) Ben Roethlisberger and Bruce Gradkowski. Kevin Colbert has said before he's a three-quarterback guy. But a pair of injuries - Martavis Bryant and Brice McCain - might mean the team needs to free up a roster spot, at least temporarily. Landry Jones didn't make any big mistakes in the preseason finale, but he didn't make any plays, either.

Running back: (4) Le'Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount, Dri Archer and Will Johnson. Josh Harris made a late push, but the telling thing to me was in the first quarter, the Steelers lined up with Johnson, their fullback/tight end at tailback for a couple of plays and even gave him a carry. He gained six yards. That tells me the team is looking at contingency plans because it feels it can get by with the three true tailbacks. Harris goes to the practice squad.

Wide receiver: (5) I originally went with four with Archer being a guy capable of playing both running back and receiver. Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Lance Moore, Bryant and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Heyward-Bey has moved to the head of the pack in the last two preseason games. Justin Brown goes to the practice squad for another year.

Tight end: (3) Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth and Michael Palmer. Palmer did a nice job with his blocking in the preseason finale and is a good special teams player. Rookie Rob Blanchflower heads to the practice squad.

Offensive line: (9) The starters are set. The backups will be Mike Adams, Guy Whimper, Cody Wallace and Wesley Johnson. I didn't have Johnson making it on my previous 53-man rosters, but Wallace's finger injury opened the door for him to step up at center.

Defensive line: (7): Brett Keisel's signing adds to this group. Cam Heyward, Steve McLendon, Stephon Tuitt, Cam Thomas, Daniel McCullers and Josh Mauro get hats. Mauro, however, could head to the practice squad.

Linebacker (10): The starters are set. And Jarvis Jones played a strong game against the Panthers, alleviating some fears about him. Arthur Moats, Vince Williams, Sean Spence, who is injured, and Terence Garvin get the next four spots, leaving two spots for Chris Carter, Howard Jones or Jordan Zumwalt. After watching this one, I think Carter gets one spot and Jones gets the other. Jones is still too thin and gets pushed around, but Zumwalt has been hurt too much to earn a spot. Dan Molls really helped himself against the Panthers. But he's a pure inside linebacker on a team with a bunch of them. He could head to the practice squad with Jones and/or Zumwalt if the team tries to save a space elsewhere.

Defensive back (10): I originally had 11 making it, but the 11 included Shaq Richardson, who has been hurt much of the preseason and should be able to slide onto the practice squad without being claimed. The starters are set along with Will Gay, McCain and Antwon Blake at corner and Will Allen, Shamarko Thomas and Robert Golden at safety.

Specialists: (3) Greg Warren said he's been cleared to resume practice and will play against Cleveland. That's good news for him and somebody else on the roster, bad news for Bryce Davis. Shaun Suisham and Brad Wing will be the kickers. Wing had a pretty decent game against the Panthers, averaging 39.6 yards net on his punts. The Steelers can live with that.

Steelers-Panthers game thread

It's a beautiful night here at Heinz Field for the game between the Steelers and Panthers.

It's going to be an interesting game for a number of players, huge in some cases. We already know that a number of veterans aren't going to suit up for the Steelers, including Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu and Cam Heyward.

Others will be in and out very quickly.

And for the bubble guys, if there still are any at this, point, do-or-die day has come. Either they perform now or move on to their life's work.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Steelers make first round of cuts

The Steelers released their first round of cuts this morning, releasing nine players, including former California University of Pa. receiver C.J. Goodwin.

Also released were running backs Jordan Hall and Miguel Maysonet, wide receiver Kashif Moore, tight end Eric Waters, safety Jordan Dangerfield, cornerbacks Devin Smith and Lewis Toler and linebacker Vic So'oto.

Dangerfield, So'oto and Waters were somewhat surprising early cuts.

All had shown some ability, but it was going to be difficult to make the roster with the numbers at their respective positions.

And in the case of Waters, he just couldn't stay healthy.

Released later in the day were offensive linemen Chris Elkins and Emmanuel McCray, defensive linemen Hebron Fangupo and Brian Arnfelt, cornerbacks Devin Smith and Lewis Toler, running back Tauren Poole and long snapper Luke Ingram.

The releases of Fangupo and Arnfelt will raise some eyebrows since both were on the roster last season, but the addition of promising rookies Stephon Tuitt, Daniel McCullers and Josh Mauro made them expendable.

@ Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said today that longsnapper Greg Warren has a possibility of being ready to play Sept. 7 against Cleveland.

@ Tomlin was asked for about the fifth time in the past few days about possible punishments for running backs Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount.

He once again gave the stock answer that the Steelers want to keep it internal and everything is off the table.

But if everything - including a suspension - aren't off the table, that doesn't jibe. Obviously, everyone would notice if either running back was suspended, therefore making it public.

The guess here is that Bell and Blount will be fined by the team - a game check each? - and still play in the regular season opener.

The league might have suspensions coming down the road - likely not until next season - but it's more difficult for the team to suspend a player.

The NFLPA raised a stink with the league when the team held Santonio Holmes out of a game in 2008 - with pay - for a similar offense.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Monday news, notes

Ben Roethlisberger said today that he doesn't expect to play in Thursday night's preseason game against Carolina and that he's OK with where the offense is at, despite the team struggling last Thursday against Philadelphia.

Roethlisberger said the team only ran the no-huddle on its opening drive by design and that offensive coordinator Todd Haley gave him the option of doing it again later in the game but Roethlisberger declined because he didn't want to put anything on tape for future opponents to see.

He also said the team was moving Markus Wheaton and others around a lot and perhaps forcing things to them to see where they fit into the grand scheme of things.

@ Mike Tomlin said today that the team is considering its options in regard to discipline regarding running backs Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount and their run-in with the police last week for possession of pot.

Tomlin, who said a suspension wasn't off the table, also said that whatever the team does won't be made public. That seems to suggest that it won't be a team-mandated suspension.

@ By all appearances, there is nothing to be concerned about with linebacker Jason Worilds' knee.

Worilds left the game against Philadelphia on Thursday after taking a shot to his knee. But he appears to be OK.

@ The NFL's new practice squad rules have opened up a whole new group of players to being eligible to being placed on the 10-man practice squad this year.

Here are the players who now will also be practice squad eligible that would not have been before.

Mike Adams
Kelvin Beachum
Le’Veon Bell
Antwon Blake
David DeCastro
Terence Garvin
Robert Golden
Will Johnson
Jarvis Jones
David Paulson
Shamarko Thomas
Ross Ventrone
Markus Wheaton

Vince Williams

Obviously, many of those guys wouldn't be headed to the practice squad since many will be key members of this year's squad. But for a guy such as Ross Ventrone, for example, it's a big move.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Post-Eagles thoughts

Actually, I should have titled this one "Post-Eagles disgust."

That was a putrid effort pretty much across the board by the Steelers, who appeared to have spent the day collectively smoking what was left over of the Le'Veon Bell-LeGarrette Blount stash.

Actually, a few guys did show up, including Bell and Blount, both of who played into the fourth quarter, well after the rest of the starters had gone gently into the night.

I thought the two running backs, along with the offensive line, were the standouts of a shoddy first half. Bell and Blount split the carries, getting five each, and gained 43 yards, a respectable 4.3 yards per carry average.

Then, in the second half, working against the Eagles' backups, joined most of the rest of the team in the tank.

The defense, meanwhile, was pretty bad throughout.

Yes, it got off the field on the opening possession by the Eagles, thanks to a tackle for a 5-yard loss by Lawrence Timmons and a pass breakup by Ike Talyor. After that however, it was pretty much a butt-kicking contest. The Eagles provided the foot. The Steelers provided the butt.

@ Who else shall we single out?

* How about placekicker Shaun Suisham, who missed his third kick of the preseason, this one a 46-yarder.

Now, two of Suisham's misses have come without Greg Warren making the snaps, so there could be something to that in terms of the speed with which the ball is getting back to the holder. Or, it could be the holder, Brad Wing, himself.

But everything looked OK on those two fronts to my untrained eye.

* Or how about Justin Brown? With Lance Moore held out, presumably so the team could take a look at some other guys fighting for the fifth spot. Brown got first chance and ran a wrong route to end the Steelers' first drive. He failed to catch either ball thrown his way.

Darrius Heyward-Bey was up next. He caught all three passes thrown his way for 54 yards and a touchdown - though he was playing with Bruce Gradkowski.

Derek Moye was in at the end and failed to catch the only pass thrown his way.

Take from that what you will.

* Cam Thomas' play is the reason why Brett Keisel was brought back. The more the Steelers saw of Thomas - including getting blown away at the goal line in this one - the more they wanted Keisel back.

* Even Heath Miller couldn't get on the same page as Ben Roethlisberger in this one.

Roethlisberger had a pretty good pocket most of the game and was just off. His final numbers - 15 of 24 for 157 yards, a touchdown and an interception - were bolstered by a third-quarter TD drive against the Eagles' backups.

As good as Roethlisberger looked last week, he looked equally as bad this week.

* I like Mike Mitchell's speed, but if he's not going to wrap guys up when he attempts to tackle them, he's going to keep getting run over like he did by Philly tight end Brent Celek.

* If Dri Archer is going to just fair catch every punt, the Steelers might as well just put Antonio Brown out there.

Maybe Archer is skittish because he got drilled a couple of times in Week 1, but he's calling for the fair catch pretty early.

* Wing has done nothing to earn this punting job. As mentioned, who knows how much of Suisham's struggles involve the holder. Suisham would certain never say.

But Wing's primary job is to punt. And he averaged an uninspiring 39.8 yards on his five punts in this one, including a 48-yarder he booted into the end zone.

If Adam Podlesh doesn't suddenly show up in the next two weeks, the Steelers' punter is somebody who has yet to be cut by another NFL team.

@ It wasn't all bad.

Antonio Brown was his usual self, though, like Roethlisberger, a lot of his damage was done against Philly's second unit.

And, outside of jumping offside on one play and then losing contain, Jason Worilds was very active before leaving with what is likely a bruised knee.

@ OK, that's all I've got, other than the running backs and offensive line early on.

@ The two teams combined for 27 - ! - penalties in this game.

NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino told the NFL Network after this game that there will likely be fewer penalties called once the regular season begins.

No kidding! There couldn't possibly be more.

Preseason games are nearly unwatchable enough without the officials throwing out more flags than you'll see at a U.N. convention.

@ Mike Tomlin played Bell and Blount into the fourth quarter and said that was more punishment than sitting the two running backs out.

But judging from his comments, there will be more punishment forthcoming at some point.

@ Sean Spence left early with a PCL injury to his right knee. It was his left knee that he injured before. And PCL injuries usually just require rest.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Bell cited for marijuana possession

Le'Veon Bell was cited for marijuana possession on Wednesday afternoon in Ross Township while on his way to the airport for the team's flight to Philadelphia. Bell was also cited for DUI.

Both are misdemeanor citations.

Running back LeGarette Blount was also in the vehicle but was not charged at this time and traveled with the team to Philadelphia. He could still face charges.

The issue for the Steelers will be what to do with their top two running backs.

Bell, since he was cited for DUI, had to go to a local hospital for a blood draw and missed the team plane.

The fact that Blount was in the vehicle with Bell cannot be comforting to head coach Mike Tomlin.

Presumably, since neither player has been suspended for violation of the substance abuse policy, this is their first offense. But we just don't know.

First-time violations put the player in the system. A second violation is an automatic suspension of up to four games.

Kansas City's Dwayne Bowe drew a one-game suspension from the league earlier this week for a traffic stop last November in which he was found to be in possession of a small amount of marijuana.

So any league action could be a long way down the road. And Bell, who was driving and charged with DUI, would presumably be in line for a harsher penalty.

Some will point to Santonio Holmes' traffic stop in 2008 when he was sent home by Mike Tomlin and not permitted to play in a game against the Giants as a precedent. But those were different circumstances.

Holmes' traffic stop came on a Thursday before a game. Tomlin sent him home Friday because he didn't want him to be a distraction.

The NFLPA likely won't allow for the team to suspend the players on its own - at least not without pay - because this incident happened so long before the start of the season. No punishment will be forthcoming until the matter is legally resolved.

It was a stupid move by both Bell and Blount.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Busy day for Steelers

The Steelers had a busy day at the office, agreeing with defensive end Brett Keisel on a return and signing offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert to a five-year, $30-million extension that includes a signing bonus of $7.68 million.

Gilbert's deal came first and locks the team's starting right tackle up through the 2019 season when he'll be 31.

Gilbert was one of four players on the team's wish list for deals to get done this preseason. That list also included placekicker Shaun Suisham, who signed an extension a couple of weeks ago, linebacker Jason Worilds and cornerback Cortez Allen.

It appears at this point, the team doesn't have anything imminent with Worilds or Allen.

Keisel's return had long been rumored. The 13-year-veteran still hadn't cleaned out his lockers - yes, he has two - at the team's practice facility and wanted to play at least one more season.

Arizona attempted to bring him in for a physical Tuesday after losing Darnell Dockett to a knee injury Monday. But the Steelers preempted the move, getting in contact with Keisel's agent. He flew to Arizona, but quickly turned around and flew back to Pittsburgh, where he makes his home.

How the Steelers work Keisel into a rotation that already includes Cameron Heyward, free agent-signee Cam Thomas and rookie Stephon Tuitt remains to be seen.

Heyward, the starter at left defensive end in 2013, moved to Keisel's right defensive end position in the spring, while Thomas and Tuitt have been sharing time at left defensive end.

But there's little doubt the team could use his veteran leadership. He was the team's defensive captain the past two seasons and is one of the more respected players in the locker room.

Cutting the roster part II

In an effort for fairness, I'm not going to look at who I had making the team and who I didn't the first time around two weeks ago before the Steelers played a game.

Suffice it to say that while some things have stayed the same, others have changed.

Here's my 53-man roster through two preseason games.

Quarterback (3): Ben Roethlisberger, Bruce Gradkowski and ?. Kevin Colbert has said in the past that he's a proponent of keeping three quarterbacks on the roster. There's some danger to just keeping two, the biggest being that a team can sign a player off your practice squad. Quarterbacks are a big part of the game-planning. They know all of the audibles and what everyone is doing on the field offensively. So the Steelers will likely go with three. Is that guy Landry Jones? Quite frankly, he's not been good. Might there be a better possibility out there who is going to get released? It would be an un-Steelers-like move, but perhaps.

Running back (5): Le'Veon Bell, LeGarette Blount, Dri Archer and Will Johnson are givens. None of the other guys have shown much in game action. But Miguel Maysonet did have two special teams tackles against the Bills, so he gets a spot, for now.

Wide receiver (4): Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Lance Moore and Martavis Bryant are givens. I supposed Justin Brown is No. 5 for now. But with the NFL talking about expanding practice squads to 10 players this season and nobody really making a solid push, I'm now of the mind they go with four receivers and use Dri Archer as the fifth. They'll need a roster spot for a long-snapper. That puts both Justin Brown and Derek Moye on the practice squad.

Offensive line (8): The starting five plus Mike Adams, Guy Whimper and Cody Wallace. I know Mike Munchak has said he'd like to keep nine, but there isn't a ninth who would be anything close to being one of the top 53 players.

Tight ends (3): Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth and Michael Palmer. Spaeth's continuing injury problems concern me and force me to keep Palmer, whose a solid special teams player and blocker.One of the young tight ends go on the practice squad.

Defensive line (6): Cam Heyward, Cam Thomas, Steve McLendon, Stephon Tuitt, Daniel McCullers and Josh Mauro. Three rookies? Sure, why not? Brian Arnfelt was a frontrunner for a backup spot, but Mauro's pushing hard and has passed him up.

Linebackers (9): Jarvis Jones, Jason Worilds, Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, Arthur Moats, Howard Jones, Vince Williams, Terence Garvin and Sean Spence. Chris Carter just hasn't shown anything.

Defensive backs (11): No changes here from the first time around. I still see Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, William Gay, Antwon Blake, Brice McCain and Shaq Richardson at corner and Troy Polamalu, Mike Mitchell, Will Allen, Robert Golden and Shamarko Thomas at safety.

Specialists (4): Shaun Suisham, Brad Wing, Greg Warren and Luke Ingram. This is going to have to be a week-by-week thing until Warren is ready to go, which should only take a week or two into the season.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Deep thoughts from Steelers-Bills

Ryan Shazier's debut for the Steelers Saturday night was as good as any I remember in 22 seasons of covering this team.

He was everywhere. But that's what we were seeing from him at the offseason workouts and early on in training camp. The kid goes sideline to sideline.

And that's why I didn't get too crazy concerned about the long touchdown run the Steelers allowed in preseason Week 1 against the Giants. Shazier wasn't there. Nor was Troy Polamalu.

That's two pretty good guys up the middle.

@ I saw former Steelers team photographer Mike Fabus, who is now retired, in the press box before the game. Fabus is the guy who came up with the idea to put Rod Woodson in a Superman outfit his rookie season and shoot that for the cover of Steelers Digest.

I'm guessing Fabus' creative juices were flowing after that debut by Shazier.

@ Think the preseason doesn't matter?

Watch Dick LeBeau's reaction after Robert Golden broke up a pass on fourth and goal at the end of the first half.

@ I don't understand the decision by both the Giants and Bills, both of which play in the northeast, to not send their kickoffs short to get a good look at their coverage teams.

How are they going to know if their coverage units are any good if they don't take a look at them?

Yes, I have selfish reasons, as well. I want to see Dri Archer on some returns.

@ It's tough to judge the backup quarterbacks based on the fact the Steelers have about 2 1/2 capable reserve offensive linemen.

But the Steelers did put Landry Jones in with the starting line for one series and he promptly threw an interception.

@ Ben Roethlisberger put the ball in the air 11 times and didn't get dirty in this game.

The Steelers exclusively ran the no-huddle when Roethlisberger was in the game, and it was very, very effective.

The offensive line was a big part of that working against a Buffalo defensive front that was one of the best in the league last season.

@ Victor So'oto isn't going to get the publicity that Howard Jones is getting for recovering three fumbles in the first two preseason games, but So'oto has forced two of those loose balls Jones has picked up.

@ Robert Golden got trucked along the sideline by fullback Evan Rodriguez but had the sense to quickly get up. And when Shamarko Thomas forced a fumble, Golden was there to jump on it.

He also had the pass breakup in the end zone and an interception later in the game.

If I'm veteran safety Will Allen, who missed this game with a hamstring injury, I'm not sitting out long.

I think both guys make the team, but you never know.

@ Shazier, by the way, looked like had been through a car crash after this game. His forehead was bruised and battered.

@ Lawrence Timmons' eyes lit up when I asked him about all of the young linebackers making  plays on this defense.

Timmons has taken on a leadership role on this team and really seems to be enjoying it.

"As the older player, it's good to see the younger players you've been working with go out and perform well," Timmons said.

Shazier was an animal in this game, but you also had contributions from So'oto, Jones and Terence Garvin, who had a big sack.

The linebacker position on this team is going to be a tough cut.

@ By the same token, it's going to be tough to decide who the fifth receiver will be based on these games. The backup quarterback work has been so shoddy because of second- and third-string offensive line issues that the reserve receivers aren't getting many chances.

I think Justin Brown is still No. 5, but I can't be sure about that because none of those guys are getting quality chances.