The Pittsburgh Steelers won the right to go on the attack in the opening series of the game and with a first-team offense on the field, they didn’t disappoint. Preseason game two for Pittsburgh was meant to be a “significant step” according to head coach Mike Tomlin. Enter Ben Roethlisberger under center, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Heath Miller, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton and the likely offensive line starters and the Steelers looked primed for a big game. In a six-play drive that consumed 80 yards and saw Wheaton put Pittsburgh up 8-0 in no time, the game looked to be a huge step forward.
Then entered the defense. Special teams. The offense without their starters.
Pittsburgh saw their early lead cancelled after the Blake Bortles-led Jaguars chewed up yard after yard on the ground early with little defensive answer for the run. The Steelers were without Robert Golden, Daniel McCullers, Vince Williams, Ross Ventrone – and surprisingly Lawrence Timmons who was dressed but didn’t enter the game (later revealed as being due to a toe injury). Keith Butler sent in several 4-3 defensive front plays but the real energy came early from a sack and strip by James Harrison that was recovered by Bortles. The defense was slow to predict the correct assignments and in many cases the corners had little to no help over the top from safeties. Overall, the image wasn’t one of intensity or control, but one of continuing miscommunication along the defense.
The Steelers did stick with Jacksonville despite allowing the Jaguars to continue to score on plays that illustrated blown coverage and errors that still need to be corrected if Pittsburgh wants to be a successful team in 2015. Backup quarterback Chad Henne threw a pass to tight end Clay Harbor that should have been easily defended just before halftime by cornerback B.W. Webb. Unfortunately, safety Shamarko Thomas was misaligned, drifting towards the inside, not allowing a seal on the sideline in time to make a play on Harbor or the ball. The result was that Jacksonville was up 17-8 at halftime.
When Landry Jones entered the game, he was once again forced to burn an early timeout due to the play clock expiring, but to Jones’ credit, it was the sidelines that were responsible for the miscues. Once the correct personnel were on the field, Jones was able to take two shots down the field but watched Bryant make a catch and not get both feet in bounds and Jaguars corner Davon House tip the other out of the grasp of Darius Heyward-Bey.
Although punter Jordan Berry and kicker Garrett Hartley showed bright moments, the Steelers’ special teams units were out-manned in return coverage. Denard Robinson had a 34-yard kickoff return for the Jaguars that displayed how poorly the coverage team converged on the ball and secured the tackle. Rashad Green added a 37-yard punt return. This is an area that Pittsburgh has got to be wringing their hands over a bit as improvement is proving elusive after their burning by the Minnesota Vikings in the Hall of Fame game.
The Steelers were able to crawl back into the lead, 21-17, and had Jacksonville pinned deep when Jordan Zumwalt made a mental error that resulted in a flag for roughing the passer. The play gave away an easy 15 yards to the Jaguars and they capitalized by driving for a touchdown and the final lead. Jacksonville gained the win, 23-21.
Tomlin said in the post-game presser:
“Not the outcome that we desired but there were some awesome situations for the group to be in. Some positive things, obviously, and some negative things. We played tonight and will analyze tomorrow. I think the energy and effort of the guys, we just came up a little short…Largely, I liked some of the things that were displayed on the field. Obviously, it would have been nice to finish the game out, but we didn’t. We take responsibility for that. We have a lot of things to learn from and got a good look at a lot of different guys in a lot of different circumstances.”
Jones watched Shakim Phillips and Sammie Coats drop passes only to have Jesse James make an in-traffic catch that went for 22 yards and gave Pittsburgh a first down with just a little over ten minutes left in the fourth quarter. The play eventually set up a nice touch pass from Jones to C.J. Goodwin for 21 yards and a first down at the Jaguars’ 11-yard line. With just under eight minutes left in the game, Hartley was able to kick a 29-yard field goal to put the three points closer to Jacksonville at 14-17. Jones was able to capitalize on a Shayon Green strip on the kickoff that followed and Coates recovered at the Jacksonville 17-yard line. Converting a pass to Coates, Jones then hit Goodwin in the end zone for a touchdown.
Matt Conrath sacked Henne in the third quarter thanks to pressure that outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo applied.
DeAngelo Williams looks ready to carry the load as Bell’s main backup in the offensive backfield.
Pittsburgh just could not get off of the field in the first two quarters and allowed the Jaguars to convert on third and fourth down.
Howard Jones’ illegal block in the back penalty forced the offense to start their opening possession in the fourth quarter at their own 14-yard line, forcing Berry to punt from the Steelers’ end zone.
Tomlin and the coaching staff were handed situations throughout that game that presented challenges that required more than a few adjustments, especially late in the game. When the offense was firing, the defense stalled. When the defense stepped up, the offense saw inconsistency. It was a back and forth type of game, and although this remains just the second preseason game, one where players are still fighting to make roster spots and make critical real-time decisions, penalties represented a lack of overall mental sharpness – as did miscommunication. The Steelers look to have a high-energy offense ready to threaten nearly any opponent, but until they are able to come together cohesively on defense and special teams they look to struggle in defending. The game gave Pittsburgh an opportunity to show they could not only stay in it for a full 60 minutes and fight from a deficit. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough of an overall effort to secure a win. There is still time for adjustments, but to pretend that play was satisfactory – even for a preseason game – would be naive.