Steelers Resign Vince Williams to 3 Year Contract, Is Lawrence Timmons Time in Pittsburgh Limited?

The Pittsburgh Steelers extended their first contract of the preseason today, but this latest contract extension didn’t involve the player or the position every expected. The Steelers are reportedly in negotiations for a long-term deal with guard David DeCastro. While that deal has yet to materialized, as Cameron Heyward’s did at the start of training camp 2015, an agreement was expected.

  • Linebacker was another position where the Steelers looked to extend a contract.
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Vince Williams tackles Reggie Bush at Heinz Field in 2013. Photo credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today; used on StillCurtain

And they did. Except it didn’t involve the player the Steelers were expected to resign. The move saw the Steelers resign Vince Williams to a 3 year contract. While Vince Williams is the type of player the Steelers would typically look to extend, his new contract calls into question Lawrence Timmons time in Pittsburgh.

Vince Williams Heir Apparent at Inside Linebacker?

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Vince Williams in the 6th round of the 2013 NFL Draft with the hope that he would develop into a player capable of replacing veteran Larry Foote. Foote had returned to his starting role in 2012 following James Farrior’s retirement/waiver, and had played well, but he was going into his 12th year and pushing age 33.

  • Vince Williams did replace Larry Foote, albeit a lot sooner than the Steelers expected or wanted.

Larry Foote was injured in the Steelers 2013 opening day debacle vs. Tennessee ending his season on the spot. Vince Williams was in street clothes, leaving Kion Wilson to replace Foote. Wilson only played 9 games for the Steelers before getting cut midseason. By the time Vince Williams was the regular starer.

To say that Vince Williams got a baptism by fire represents an understatement.

The young linebacker struggled in Dick LeBeau’s system. Fans saw the once vaunted Steelers run defense give up yards easily, and often pointed the finger at Steve McLendon who himself was replacing a legend in Casey Hampton. However, more educated analysis pin-pointed the weakness on Vince Williams.

  • Nonetheless, Williams improved, and by the end of the season was making head-turning plays behind the line of scrimmage.

Williams has only made two starts since 2013, but he has played extensively in relief of either Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence and Lawrence Timmons. Williams has improved each and every year, and he is by no means a liability to the Steelers defense when he is in the game.

Terms of the deal were not released, but one would have to expect that Vince Williams would only have agreed to sign a contract now, as opposed to waiting for free agency in 2017, if the Steelers were offering starter money….

Clock Ticking for Lawrence Timmons in Pittsburgh? 

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin made Lawrence Timmons the first pick of the Tomlin era in 2007, when they picked the linebacker in the 2007 NFL Draft. Timmons was originally tagged as an outside linebacker, but injuries kept him off the field for most of his rookie year. The Steelers extend Timmon’s contract in 2011, and while Timmons struggled in 2011, he was easily the Steelers most consistent defensive player in 2012, 2013 and arguably in 2014.

While Timmons has not shown any signs of slowing down, he has turned 30.

Timmons has been healthy as well, having started all 16 games since 2011. Timmons has a cap value of over 15 million dollars due to numerous restructures, and it would seem logical for the Steelers to extend his contract to create salary cap relief.

However, with Ryan Shazier locked in at the other inside linebacker position, Vince Williams resigned for the next three years, and a host of younger players rounding out the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker, it is hard to see how Timmons fits in – if the Steelers indeed offered Vince Williams starter money.

  • Steelers fans who want to see Timmons stay in Pittsburgh do have a ray of hope.

When the Pittsburgh Steelers extend the contract of a player they project as a long-term starter, they often do it for more than three years. In 2011 Ike Taylor got a four year contract, Willie Colon got a 5 year contract, LaMarr Woodley got a six year contract, and Timmons himself got a six year contract.

Ironically enough, of the group, only Timmons has played his the entire contract. For the moment however, it looks like Timmons’ second contract with the Steelers may be his last.

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The Clock is Ticking…. For Travis Feeney to Secure his Steelers Roster Spot

Of all the Steelers rookies and young players being talked about this summer, from 1st round pick Artie Burns to Sean Davis to Javon Hargrave, Eli Rogers, Tyler Matakevich, etc, etc, the one name conspicuously absent from any sort of hype is sixth round pick Travis Feeney.

I find that rather disappointing, since I was really looking forward to the young linebacker out of Washington turning heads in training camp and during the preseason.

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Steelers 6th round pick Travis Feeney during OTA’s. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP used in Seattle Times

When you studied Travis Feeney’s NFL.com Draft profile that included such measurables as a 6-4, 230 lb frame, 4.5 speed and a 40-inch vertical, well, that was pretty darn enticing.

And then there was this analysis by Mark Dulgerian:

Feeney is one of the more athletic edge pass rushers whom many considered a late-round sleeper heading into Day 3.  As he develops, he can carry over his special teams coverage skills to the Steelers’ units.

You had to wonder why a guy who recorded eight sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss in his senior year with the Huskies and possessed so much raw athleticism would slip to the third day of the draft, but as he told ESPN in May, multiple shoulder surgeries may have contributed to his falling stock:

“That’s what I’m thinking why. You never know. Kind of unpredictable.”

  • But, regardless of where an athlete is selected, if his skills shine through, the coaching staff is going to see it.

So have Feeney’s skills shined through so far this summer?

Not yet.

Rocky Training Camp for Travis Feeney Thus Far….

Google “Travis Feeney” and you don’t find much about him, other than stories that date back to the spring, right after the Steelers drafted him. Meanwhile, there are multiple stories to read about guys like Eli Rogers and 7th round pick Tyler Matakevich.

This past Thursday, he finally made his debut in the Steelers preseason loss to the Eagles at Heinz Field, but only recorded one tackle.

Is pointing this stuff out a bit unfair? Perhaps. After all, what have we heard or read about cornerback Artie Burns so far this summer, other than the lumps he’s taken while trying to cover Antonio Brown at training camp? And when someone is injured and can’t practice or get into exhibition games, there aren’t going to be many stories written about him.

Fair enough, but the difference between Artie Burns and Travis Feeney is five rounds. That means Burns was a lock to make the team the second head coach Mike Tomlin called him to tell him he was the Steelers newest first round pick on during the 2016 NFL Draft.

  • Dulgerian alluded to Feeney’s special teams prowess in his aforementioned assessment, and he was named the Huskies Special Teams Player of the Year in 2014.

There’s usually room on an NFL roster for a special teams demon, and Feeney can certainly put his skills to good use as he develops into an outside linebacker. Sadly for him, his draft status isn’t one that lends itself to the same benefit of the doubt Burns’ currently enjoys.

2 Presason Games Might Define Travis Feeney’s Steelers

So is Travis Feeney a prime candidate to wind up on the Steelers practice squad this year? At the moment, that appears to be Travis Feeney’s Steelers future.

Feeney’s a sentimental favorite in these parts. When Travis Feeney signed his rookie contract, this site observed that the Steelers have a long tradition of drafting successful linebackers in the sixth round, from Vince Williams, to Bryan Hinkle, to Eric Ravotti and of course, the legendary Greg Lloyd.

  • However, Mike Tomlin is not wont to make sentimental decisions when it comes to awarding spots on either the Steelers 53 man roster or the practice squad.

Fortunately for him, Travis Feeney still has two preseason games to allow his skills to shine through. He’d be wise to take full advantage of every snap he gets. Here’s to hoping Travis Feeney gives Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, Joey Porter and Jerry Olsavsky every reason to give him the ultimate benefit of the doubt.

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Steelers Tight End David Johnson – Can Johnson Fill the Void Until Ladarius Green Recovers?

With Ladarius Green lingering injury creating chaos, could forgotten man, David Johnson fill the 2016 Steelers void at tight end, at least in the short term? Clearly, Steelers coaches want Jesse James to fill that void.

Coaches don’t always get what they want but Steelers tight end David Johnson just might provide enough of what Pittsburgh’s offense needs until Ladarius Green recovers….

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Steelers tight end David Johnson catches a pass in preseason. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Whether it is because of his ankle, as Mike Tomlin insists, or because of headaches (sinus or concussion related), the Pittsburgh Steelers are in no hurry to take Ladarius Green off of the PUP list. Green insists his issues are with his ankle and not his head, and that he’s improving. But the Steelers 2016 opener vs. the Washington Redskins is two weeks away, and Green has yet to take a snap with the Steelers offense in practice, let alone a game.

  • And that leaves the Steelers in a quandary at tight end.

Heath Miller has retired. Matt Spaeth failed his physical and the Steelers and has been cut. That shifted most of the focus on Jesse James, the Steelers 5th round pick from the 2015 NFL Draft. So be it. Jesse James looked good as a rookie, catching his second and third passes for scores. But Landry Jones ill-fated 4th interception came as the result of getting drilled before throwing the ball, and James blocking on that play.

If his preseason stats are any indication, the Steelers are not looking to use Jesse James as a weapon on the passing game. And that means that whoever starts for the Steelers at tight end needs to block well. And James is having issues there.

That leaves David Johnson.

David Johnson from Forgotten Man to Key Role Player (Again)

Let’s get this out in the open. I’m a David Johnson fan. David Johnson wasn’t the 2009 NFL Draft’s “Mr. Irrelevant” but he was pretty close, as the Steelers drafted Johnson at 241 in the 7th round, or 16 picks before the final player was taken.

  • What exactly are the odds of a 7th round draft pick of a defending Super Bowl champion making the final roster?

Who knows, but they cannot be good, especially when that Super Bowl team has Heath Miller playing in his prime and Matt Spaeth growing into his third year. But Johnson bucked the system and made the Steelers. Johnson first came to my attention in the Steelers 2010 road upset of the Baltimore Ravens. That might seem odd, given Troy Polamalu’s strip sack of Joe Flacco, LaMarr Woodley’s recovery, Ben Roethlisberger’s brawl with Terrell Suggs, and Isaac Redman’s will-power touchdown.

Yet, in naming David Johnson as the game’s unsung hero the Steelers-Ravens Report Card observed this:

…For a guy that never caught anything, to come in to the number two tight end position and bring down three catches including a 25 yarder that was the Steelers first long gain of the night. The Steelers continue to win in the face of so many injuries because David Johnson and players like him are stepping it up.

And that’s largely the kind of player David Johnson has been. There’s nothing sexy about him. He’s a guy who has made a career of fighting for an winning one of those final 10 roster spots year-in-and year out. He’s also overcome adversity.

Todd Haley tapped him to transition into a full-time fullback in 2012, only for Johnson to get injured in training camp. The Steelers made an unhearalded resigning of Johnson in the 2013 off season, and Johnson worked his way back in 2013. A year after being asked to drop weight and become play fullback full time, with Health Miller and Matt Spaeth out, David Johnson stepped into the number 1 tight end role.

  • David Johnson didn’t make anyone forget he wasn’t Heath Miller in 2013, and he’s not going to do it in 2016 either.

But Johnson did have the makings of a nice comeback story until he tore his ACL in the Steelers victory over the New York Jets. The Steelers let Johnson depart to San Diego where he put up the kind of numbers you’d expect him to put up playing behind Antonio Gatesa nd Ladarius Green.

At this stage of his career, it’s clear that even at his best, David Johnson isn’t going to draw comparisons to Bennie Cunningham from fans who are my parents age, or to Mike Mularkey or Mark Bruener from fans who are 40 something. It would be idea if David Johnson could deliver at that level , but that’s simply not realistic. Jesse James might reach that level, but he’s not there now.

  • It says here that if the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers are to climb the Stairway to Seven, Ladarius Green is going to have to contribute at some point.

But Ladarius Green isn’t ready to do that now, and won’t be for some time. In the meantime, the Steelers need someone who won’t be a liability at tight end. Jesse James hasn’t shown he’s able to fill that role yet. Likewise, Xavier Grimble can’t do that yet either. David Johnson likely can.

David Johnson is in no way the Pittsburgh Steelers “answer” at tight end. But he could fill an important void in the here and now.

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Pittsburgh QB’s Catching Too Many Breaks: Dustin Vaughan Breaks Thumb, Steelers Sign Bryn Renner

Pittsburgh Steelers backup quarterbacks are catching too many breaks. Steelers 4th string quarterback Dustin Vaughan broke his thumb in the Steelers preseason loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, prompting Pittsburgh to sign Bryn Renner.

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Dustin Vaughan broke his thumb in Steelers preseason loss to Eagles. Photo Credit: Don Wright, Associated Press; used on The Morning Call

Dustin Vaughan breaking his thumb comes on the heels of backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski suffering a hamstring tear in the Steelers preseason loss to the Detroit Lions. Landry Jones, who thus far has handled the bulk of the Steelers preseason work this summer is still standing as is Ben Roethlisberger.

Mike Tomlin is expected to play Ben Roethlisberger in the Steelers 3rd preseason contest vs. the New Orleans Saints, although the case for sitting Ben Roethlisberger for the duration of preseason is persuasive.

Who is Steelers Quarterback Bryn Renner?

Bryn Renner is a native of Springfield, Virginia who played his college ball as North Carolina Tar Heel, where he appeared in 28 games, throwing 1005 passes and completing 668 of those for 64 touchdowns and 25 interceptions. Going into his senior year he was touted as a possible 1st round draft pick, but an injury ended his senior season at 7 games, as Renner went undrafted.

The Denver Broncos brought Renner to training camp, but he failed ot make the final cut and spent time with the Arizona Rattlers, of the Arena Football League. From there he spent the 2015 off season and preseason as a member of the Baltimore Ravens, hanging on their practice squad for 10 days in September only to return in in December, where he earned a promotion to the active roster for a week’s time, until the Ravens signed Ryan Mallett.

From there the Tennessee Titans added Renner to their practice squad but declined to sign him to a futures contract. The San Diego Chargers signed Renner in March of 2016, but cut him during spring workouts in May of 2016.

  • So there you have it.

While there’s legitimate debate around Landry Jones evolution as a quarterback, his four interception performance vs. Philadelphia renewed pleas of many fans for the Steelers to give up on Landry Jones and “sign someone else.” (Never mind that Landry Jones has played without the benefit of Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams and Markus Wheaton.)

Well, Dustin Vaughan breaking his thumb has prompted the Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin to do just that. His name is Bryn Renner, and his resume is about what you’d expect of an unemployed NFL quarterback in mid-August.

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Le’Veon Bell Loses Appeal, Steelers Running Back Faces 3 Game Suspension

The Pittsburgh Steelers star running back Le’Veon Bell has lost the appeal of his failed drug test, and will be suspended for the first three games of the Steelers 2016 season.

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Reggie Nelson injures Steelers Le’Veon Bell in December 2014 AFC North Show Down. Photo Credit: Don Wright, Associated Press

Le’Veon Bell first ran afoul of the NFL’s substance abuse policies in July of 2013 when he an LeGarrettee Blount were caught driving while smoking marijuana. The NFL initially suspended Bell for 4 games, a suspension which was later reduced to 2. Since then Bell has said all of the right things, and was even offered up as an example for Martavis Bryant, who is struggling with marijuana addiction.

Bell went so far as to mock the random drug tests he got in April 20th:

When Steelers OTA’s began, Le’Veon Bell assured reporters he would be ready for Pittsburgh’s season opener the focus was on the recovery from the knee injury he suffered at the hands of Cincinnati Bengals thug linebacker Vontaze Burfict in the Steelers loss to the Bengals at Heinz Field last fall.

Then in the middle of June “rumors” began:

Given that the source of the rumors was sports shock jock Mark Madden – the same Mark Madden who once labeled Ike Taylor as the “Steeler worst 4th round pick ever – and give that Bell vehemently denied the rumors, the story died.

Until Steelers training camp began, and word leaked that Bell was in fact facing a four game suspension for skipping drug tests. Bell did not disucss the incident much during preseason, although there were indications that the Steelers felt confident he might win his appeal.

Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert issued the following remark when the news of Bell’s reduced suspension was announced:

We are disappointed Le’Veon Bell has been suspended three games to start the 2016 season. We will continue to support Le’Veon, but we acknowledge this mistake has put the team in an unfortunate position. We will continue to work with Le’Veon to help him eliminate distractions in his life so he can reach his full potential as a member of our community as well as a player for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In a video posted on Twitter, Bell sought to explain the situation to fans, although that video has since been deleted.

Bell’s Appeal Does Yield, “Rearguard” Variety Victory

The news was not all bad for both Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers. As Mike Garafolo of NFL.com has pointed out:

Getting his suspension reduced by 25% is a plus for both Bell and the Steelers, and Bell staying in the same stage of the NFL’s substance abuse policies is also important, as a further incident would only cost him four games, as opposed to 10.

Bell’s Loss is Toussaint and Richardson’s Gain

With Bell out for the Steelers matchups against the Washington Redskins, Cincinnati Bengals and Philadelphia Eagles, DeAngelo Williams will once again take the helm as the Steelers starting running back.

However, Bell’s absence is a boon for Fitzgerald Toussaint and Daryl Richardson, both of whom are battling to be the Steelers number 3 running back. Both men have looked strong in training camp and in preseason and barring injury or a complete meltdown during the Steelers remaining two preseason games, should make the opening day roster.

It is believe that the Steelers will not carry more than three running backs, plus Roosevelt Nix, on their active roster once Bell returns to the team. However, both men will have a chance to prove they belong between now and then.

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Steelers Eagles Preseason Game Ends in 17-0 Loss as Landry Jones Throws 4 Interceptions

It’s a good thing the Pittsburgh Steelers highly-touted offense has been missing several key members so far in the preseason, otherwise there might be cause for concern.

For the second week in a row, the Steelers, sans Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, failed to produce much on offense, as Pittsburgh fell to the Eagles, 17-0, in the second preseason game Thursday night at Heinz Field.

Backup quarterback Landry Jones threw four first half interceptions, and Philadelphia capitalized with 10 points–including a 38-yard interception return for a touchdown by cornerback Nolan Carroll II–to take a 10-0 lead into halftime.

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Landry Jones gets KOed before throwing his 4th interception in Steelers preseason loss to Eagles. Photo credit: Philip G. Pavely, Tribune-Review

For the night, Jones completed 12 of 20 passes for 111 yards and those four interceptions and did little to instill confidence in his coaches, teammates and the fans that he really is the answer at backup quarterback for the Steelers.

The Eagles took the second half kickoff and marched 87 yards on fifteen plays and capped the drive with a five-yard touchdown run by running back Kenjon Barner to make it 17-0.

There weren’t many positives from there, as it was just another ugly preseason performance by the Steelers, which, for better or for worse, has become standard for the Steelers since 2013.

Positives to Come Out of the Philadelphia Preseason Loss?

If there was perhaps one positive to take from Thursday’s performance it was the first-team defense only allowing 10 points (three if you don’t count the pick-six) despite being handicapped with those four interceptions by Jones.

As far as individual performances are concerned, nothing much stood out on either side of the ball, but second-year receiver Eli Rogers took another step or two in cementing his spot on the roster as the team’s fifth receiver by catching four passes for 39 yards.

Dustin Vaughan, who played the entire second half at quarterback, was once again under siege, as he completed seven of 13 passes for just 67 yards and was sacked four times.

Reserve running back Daryl Richardson, who impressed a week ago by rushing for 44 yards on 11 carries against the Lions, totaled just 15 yards on 10 carries, while Fitzgerald Toussaint carried the ball eight times for 26 yards.

Next up for the Steelers is an 8 p.m. kickoff in New Orleans next Friday night, as they battle the Saints in the third preseason game.

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Should Ben Roethlisberger Sit Out Preseason, All of Preseason?

It’s certainly a new era in the NFL.

For example, the Pittsburgh Steelers just ended their training camp at St. Vincents in Latrobe, Pennsylvania less than three weeks after the players reported on July 28. That’s a far cry from the yesteryear of Camp Noll, which included six weeks of two-day (and remember, Chuck Noll believed in full contact practices.)  Also, it’s now generally understood that, not only will players of a certain stature (valuable superstars) not play very much in the preseason, in some cases, they’ll sit out entire games.

  • Such was the case last year, when Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed the first and last preseason games, while Landry Jones started in his place.
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Ben Roethlisberger sits as Mike Tomlin stands @ Latrobe 2016; Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Fast-forward to the 2016 preseason. Not only did Roethlisberger skip Pittsburgh’s first game against the Lions last Friday night at Heinz Field, he was joined on the sidelines by Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams and Maurkice Pouncey.

  • If you thought things would be much different for the Steelers second preseason game, Thursday night at Heinz Field, you’re wrong.

While Pouncey, who missed the entire 2015 regular season after suffering a leg injury in the third exhibition game, may see some preseason action against Philadelphia Eagles, the rest of the aforementioned valuable superstars will get a second week to observe and relax.

“I know what Ben is capable of, I’ve worked with him for a decade now,” explained head coach Mike Tomlin, in his usual pragmatic way as he addressed the media on Tuesday at his weekly press conference:

He showed up in tremendous condition. He’s performed well. He’s obviously a veteran. What’s required for him to be ready to play might be different than others. My job is to give everybody what it is they need to be ready to go. I just believe that the reps are better served to be given to guys like Landry [Jones] and Dustin [Vaughan].

It is true that Mike Tomlin already knows what his star quarterback is capable of, but let’s not kid ourselves. He also knows what his offense isn’t capable of when Ben Roethlisberger is out of the lineup, as evidenced by the struggles the unit endured–specifically the passing game–when he missed four games in  2015 with a sprained MCL.

  • As for the rest of the players on the list, of course everyone knows what Brown, Bell and Williams are capable of and, more importantly, how vital their health is to the success of the offense.

I’m of the opinion that players like Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown would be best-served to sit out the entire preseason. If we’re to assume one of the reasons Tomlin has rested his offensive stars thus far is to avoid a serious injury, well, those can happen at any time in these games that don’t count.

  • Do you honestly think it will affect Roethlisberger’s or Brown’s regular season sharpness one bit by not taking reps in the preseason?

Minnestoa Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson has famously not had a carry in the preseason since 2011, yet he’s remained at the top of his profession year-in and year-out.

Does the absence of so many superstars make preseason games a little tougher to sit through? Yes, but the absence of even one or two vital players–particularly a franchise quarterback–often makes regular season games that much tougher to win.

 

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Landry Jones Evolution as a Steelers Quarterback

When discussing the performances of certain individuals in the Steelers 30-17 loss to the Lions at Heinz Field Friday night, Landry Jones, the backup quarterback who started in place of Ben Roethlisberger and played the entire first half, has been placed in the “losers” category by more than one expert and fan.

  • That type of criticism is understandable, I suppose.

When a player completes just six of 12 passes for 55 yards and a touchdown, he’s certainly going to open himself up to slings and arrows–even in the aftermath of the very first preseason game.

landry Jones, Steelers Lions preseason, pittsburgh Steelers, landry jones evolution

Landry Jones reads the Detroit defense as David DeCastro blocks in Steelers preseason loss to Lions. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

However, given that it was a preseason game–the very first preseason game–head coach Mike Tomlin really didn’t do Jones any favors by deactivating Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams, Maurkice Pouncey and a few other key components for the evening.

Not that Tomlin had to hand Landry Jones the keys to a Porsche with a full tank of gas (it almost seems insane to play your superstars in exhibitions games in 2016), but you might think such obstacles would give the fourth round pick out of Oklahoma in the 2013 NFL Draft a little leeway with regards to criticism.

But it didn’t.

On the surface, aside from a very pretty 29-yard touchdown pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey late in the second quarter that couldn’t have looked better if Roethlisberger had connected with Brown on the play, Jones turned in a lackluster performance Friday night.

But preseason football isn’t about judging performances at face-value. Sometimes it’s about looking at the intangibles. For instance, even though Heyward-Bey made an absolute gem of a catch when he pulled in that touchdown pass in the back corner of the end zone, you can’t forget that he also dropped a pass over the middle in the first quarter that Jones placed in-between several Lions’ defenders.

Maybe that’s why, on the heels of a bobbled bubble screen and a fumble by the second-year receiver, Jones appeared to give Sammie Coates the what for as he ran back to the huddle late in the second quarter after failing to come up with a sliding catch over the middle.

  • That also could be why Jones looked a little annoyed and irritated as he stood on the sidelines in the second half, while Bruce Gradkowski and then Dustin Vaughan took over quarterback duties.

Perhaps Jones wasn’t annoyed or irritated. It could be that he’s matured into a poised leader. But even if he was a little upset about the performances of his teammates, that’s a good thing. After all, regardless of how big of a superstar Antonio Brown is or how great of a leader Maurkice Pouncey has always been, the leader of the offense should always be the quarterback.

Remember when Alan Faneca gave his sarcastic response to the media when he learned that the then rookie Roethlisberger would be starting his first game against the Dolphins in Week 3 of the 2004 season? Faneca seemed annoyed, because, at that point, he probably envisioned having to babysit a wide-eyed rookie quarterback. Even though Faneca was in his seventh season and had long-since established himself as one of the best guards in the NFL, he probably didn’t want the added responsibility of directing traffic and being vocal in the huddle.

Jones made his NFL debut in a game against the Cardinals in Week 6 of last season, when he came on in the third quarter in place of an injured Mike Vick. Even though Jones passed for 168 yards and two touchdowns, as he led the Steelers to a 25-13 victory, his appearance wasn’t without controversy, when Brown became visibly upset after a play in-which he and the young quarterback didn’t appear to be on the same page.

  • While it’s never ideal to have those kinds of blow-ups, the natural order of things is for the quarterback to be chewing out his receiver.

If you’ve ever watched NFL Films highlights of the Steelers 21-10 victory over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL, you may have seen veteran receiver Hines Ward sitting on the sidelines next to Roethlisberger (playing in just his second season) and urging him to “Take control of that huddle.”

Regardless of an offensive player’s stature (Ward was a decorated receiver at that point of his career and moments away from being named Super Bowl MVP), he wants his quarterback to know the plays, direct traffic and demand accountability.

  • Judging by his demeanor on Friday and the way he directed the likes of Jesse James and Coates to the correct spots right before the snap, Jones confidence in himself appears to have grown.

If that’s the case, its a far-cry from what his state-of-mind must have been last fall following his heroics against Arizona, when he told the assembled media, “I still can’t believe I got in the game and to play. I’m still kind of reeling from it.”

Jones got a ton of practice last preseason, which prepared him for the spotlight. In addition to his relief appearance against the Cardinals, Jones started his first two regular season games and had to come on in another substitute role in the fourth quarter of the wild card game against the Bengals after Roethlisberger left with a shoulder injury.

Landry Jones may never duplicate what Roethlisberger has done throughout his career (there are only about three dozen passers in the history of the league who have similar resumes), but Landry Jones evolution as a Steelers quarterback may have reached the point where his coaches and teammates believe in him.

Sometimes, such belief is all a backup quarterback needs when called upon to win an important game.

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5 Times When Steelers Preseason Troubles Signaled Regular Season Stumbles

The lackluster loss to the Lions started the Steelers 2016 preseason campaign. Steelers Nation is already weighing poor performances from the likes of Alejandro Villanueva and Sammie Coates along with the poor tackling against solid play by the likes of Daryl Richardson, Landry Jones and Doran Grant.

  • Both sides of the discussion will punctuate their arguments with “Its only preseason.”

And rightly so. Steelers preseason results seldom indicate much about the coming regular season, and that’s even when stars like Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams are in the game.

But Steelers history also shows us that exceptions do exist. Click below for 5 times when preseason troubles signaled regular season Steelers stumbles.

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Shamarko Thomas drops a should be interception in Steelers preseason loss to Lions; Photo Credit: Steelers.com

1. 1990 – Steelers Tread Treacherous Terrain of Walton’s Mountain

One surprise following the 1989 Steelers story book season was Chuck Noll’s decision, under pressure from the front office, to dismiss Tom Moore and hire Joe Walton as his offensive coordinator. On paper, the move looked smart. Walton’s offensive mind was well-regarded throughout the league.

  • The reality was something different.

In an August preseason game vs. the Washington Redskins, (yours truly’s first pro football game) the Steelers offense played dazed and confused, as Bubby Brister, Rick Strom and Randy Wright combined for 148 yards, most of which was gained during the game’s final two minutes. Afterwards, Chuck Noll opined that the only place the Steelers offense had to was up….

The 1990 Steelers opened the season without scoring an offensive touchdown during September.
Although the offense did find some rhythm in the middle of 1990, missed opportunities, misused personnel and miscommunication ultimately characterized Joe Walton’s tenure as Steelers offensive coordinator.

2. 1995 Bam is No Barry

Injuries, attitude and declining production prompted Pittsburgh to part ways with one-time franchise running back Barry Foster in the 1995 off season. The emergence of Bam Morris in 1994 made the Steelers decision much easier.

  • Steelers running back’s coach Dick Hoak raved about Morris during training camp.

But the truth is, Bam Morris’ preseason performances were forgettable.

Statistics are not easily available from those preseason contests. The record shows that Bam Morris did run well vs. the Bills in the Steelers first outing, going 4 for 24, but he went 7 of 16 in the next.

The latter performance telegraphed Bam Morris’ lack luster start to the 1995 season, where he just barely averaged over 3 yards a carry during the seasons first seven games, before Bill Cowher benched him in favor of Erric Pegram, who was an unsung hero of the 1995 AFC Championship season.

3. 1996 3 Headed Quarterback Derby Spins Its Wheels

When Neil O’Donnell departed after Super Bowl XXX the Steelers opted to promote from within as Bill Cowher held a three way quarterback competition in training camp between Mike Tomczak, Jim Miller and Kordell Stewart.

Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart, Pittsburgh Steelers, Steelers quarterbacks 1990's, steelers preseason quarterbacks, bill cowher quarterback competition

Mike Tomczak and Kordell Stewart quarterbacked the Steelers in the mid-late 1990’s. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

  • The Steelers meticulously split time between the three quarterbacks, down to ensure equal practice snaps.

Bill Cowher hopped that one man would establish himself.

Unfortunately none did. Bill Cowher declared Jim Miller the starter just before the regular season, but clarified he was making a gut decision. Cowher didn’t trust his gut that much, as Jim Miller’s time as the Steelers starting quarterback lasted all of one half, as Cowher benched him in favor of Mike Tomczak.

While Tomczak led the 1996 Steelers to a 10-6 record and an AFC Central Championship, by the time December arrived it was clear that Tomczak wasn’t going to take the Steelers on a deep playoff run as Bill Cowher began to give Kordell Stewart time, who also wasn’t ready to be a signal caller.

4. 1998 Steelers Lost without John Jackson

John Jackson got blown away in the final preseason game of the 1988 season, infuriating Chuck Noll so much that the Emperor had to be talked out of cutting him. Fortunately Noll listened to his assistants, as John Jackson would be a mainstay at left tackle for the Steelers for the next decade.

But when John Jackson reached free agency at age 32 in 1997 and the San Diego Chargers offered to make Jackson the highest paid offensive lineman in the league, the Steelers said so long.

  • It was a wise move, and the Steelers had invested heavily in drafting offensive lineman to replace him.

Unfortunately, none of them were up to the task. Bill Cowher tried various combinations at both tackle positions throughout the preseason as Jerome Bettis struggled to finding holes. Finally, Cowher moved Will Wolford to left tackle, slide Justin Strzelczyk to right tackle, and the offensive line was OK, until Strzelczyk got injured in a Monday night contest vs. the Kansas City Chiefs.

Jamain Stephens, 1996’s first round draft pick, finally got his chance to start, but the image of Bettis lighting into Stephens for not blocking well enough is the enduring memory of his tenure at right tackle.

It wouldn’t be until 2000 that the Steelers restored stability to left tackle, and their entire offensive line, but the troubles the Steelers experienced during their 1998 preseason campaign foreshadowed it all.

5. 2013 0-4 Preseason Foreshadows 0-4 Steelers Start

Look at the Steelers preseason results from 2007 to 2012 and there’s one constant X-1. The Steelers never lost more than a single game in preseason, irrespective if they finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs or playing in the Super Bowl.

  • Then came the Steelers 2013 preseason campaign.

For the first time in the Mike Tomlin era and the first time since Bill Cowher’s final season, the Steelers laid a goose egg in preseason. Commentator’s cautioned “Its only preseason” and Mike Tomlin explained the losses away, indicating that the men largely responsible for those losing efforts would find themselves on the waiver wire.

  • And they did. But those preseason losses also revealed the limits of the Steelers depth.

Depth that injuries to the starting running back, the two chief backup running backs, two starting tight ends, starting center, starting cornerback, and starting inside linebacker would test to the limit. The end result was the Steelers 0-4 start after an embarrassing loss in London to the Vikings.

In 2014 and 2015 the Steelers went 1-3 and 1-4 in the preseason, yet finished in the playoffs both times, so the “its only preseason” credo held true then. But 2013 was one year when piss-poor preseason performance signaled real trouble, at least at the start of the season.

 

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Lack Luster Steelers Drop Preseason Game to Lions, 30-17

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened their 2016 preseason schedule with a 30-17 pasting at the hands of the Detroit Lions Friday night at Heinz Field, as several key members on the offensive side of the ball were given the night off.

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Sammie Coates can’t hold on as Steelers Lose to Lions 30-17 in 2016’s first preseason outing; Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham, AP via ESPN.com

Pittsburgh jumped out to a 7-0 lead in the second quarter, after cornerback Doran Grant intercepted a pass from Detroit backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky and raced 39-yards down the near sideline and into the end zone.

Later in the second quarter, with the Steelers leading, 7-3, backup quarterback Landry Jones, starting in-place of Ben Roethlisberger, hooked up with Darrius Heyward-Bey to increase the advantage to 14-3.

  • From there, it was all Detroit, as the Lions scored 27 of the next 30 points.

Detroit dominated in every facet of the game–including total yards (379-187), time of possession (34:02-25:58) and first downs (20-10).

Preseason or not, first game or not, the overall performance of his team couldn’t have been pleasing to Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who didn’t appear to be very happy on the sideline, even as his team nursed a 14-13 lead in the first half.

The Steelers second string defense and special teams missed countless tackles in the second half, namely during the 96-yard kickoff return by Dwayne Washington and on the 27-yard touchdown catch and run by Jace Billingsley.

Some Steelers Shine, Despite Lackluster Performance

Despite the Steelers lackluster performance, Pittsburgh does take some positives away from the game.  For starters, Landry Jones looks like he has solidified his position as the backup to Ben Roethlisberger. Despite completing just six of 12 passes for 55 yards and a score, Jones looked to be in command of the offense and probably deserved a better fate, as his receivers appeared to drop several catchable passes.

  • Second round pick Sean Davis saw extensive action in the secondary, and while he didn’t dazzle, the stage didn’t appear to be too big for him, as Mike Tomlin might say.
james harrison, steelers lions preseason, matthew stanford

James Harrison closes in in Matthew Stanford in Steelers preseason loss to Lions; Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Daryl Richardson, a virtual unknown at running back, may have put himself firmly on the radar of his coaches and the fans, after rushing for 45 yards on 12 carries. With Le’Veon Bell‘s suspension looming and DeAngelo Williams pushing 33, the Steelers need a solid number 3 running back.

Ricardo Mathews, the reserve defensive end Pittsburgh signed in March, had a big night pressuring the quarterback, and his near-sack of Orlovsky in the second quarter led to a horrible decision that landed in the waiting arms of Grant, who scored the night’s first touchdown.

And, finally, James Harrison, the 38-year old wonder of a linebacker, beat left tackle Taylor Decker, the Lions’ first round pick, on a play in the first quarter and stripped Matthew Stafford of the football (the first of two takeaways for the defense).

As for negatives. Aside from the lopsided box score, Sammie Coates, a receiver being counted on heavily  this year to replace the suspended Martavis Bryant, had a night he’d like to forget; not only did Coates catch just three passes for 18 yards, he dropped another pass and fumbled twice.

On the injury front, quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who missed all of last season, left the game in the second half with what was reported as a hamstring injury and never returned.

Next up on the preseason schedule is a date with the Eagles next Thursday night at Heinz Field.

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