NFL Nation: Steelers-Cardinals 081309

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Thoughts and observations from the Cardinals' first exhibition game of the 2009 season, against the Steelers on Thursday night:

  • Calais Campbell made a very positive first impression as he moved into the starting lineup at right defensive end, replacing Antonio Smith, who signed with Houston. Campbell made an aggressive play against the run early. He tossed aside Steelers tackle Max Starks to pressure Ben Roethlisberger near the goal line. Campbell also pressured Charlie Batch on a third-and-3 play. This seemed to be exactly what the Cardinals wanted to see from Campbell.
  • The Cardinals spread the field and then ran the ball on third-and-2, something they did only three times all last season by my count, converting none. Tim Hightower picked up the first down this time. It's premature to read anything into the decision as Ken Whisenhunt takes back play-calling duties. But it stood out to me as something the Cardinals should do more frequently. Hightower looked good.
  • The Cardinals' starting offensive tackles had some problems in pass protection, just as they did against the Steelers in the Super Bowl. Levi Brown is a powerful run-blocker, though. He cleared out the Steelers' Aaron Smith, helping Hightower gain 9 yards on a first-and-10 play. Brown sometimes seems miscast for the Cardinals' pass-oriented offense. I can see why Russ Grimm liked him coming out of college, though.
  • No one will be writing about how Brian St. Pierre turned up the pressure on Matt Leinart for the No. 2 job at quarterback. Leinart overcame a shaky start to play well. He took a brutal hit early in the game. It's tougher to envision the Cardinals handing the No. 2 job to St. Pierre after this game.
  • The Cardinals do not want LaRod Stephens-Howling standing there as the last line of defense in blitz pickup. That happened a couple times against the Steelers and it wasn't pretty. Stephens-Howling is 5-foot-7 and 180 pounds.
  • Rookie offensive lineman Herman Johnson held up effectively in pass protection, a very good sign for the 380-pounder. Johnson projected as a guard coming out of LSU, but the Cardinals are trying him at backup right tackle. They had to like what they saw from him in this game. His protection helped set up an intermediate completion to Sean Morey. Jason Wright found running room behind Johnson on another play. Later, Johnson pushed the Steelers' Keyaron Fox 10 yards downfield while Wright picked up 6 or 7 yards. Johnson even caught and tackled Steelers cornerback Anthony Madison during an interception return. Nice work, big fella.
  • Defensive lineman Kenny Iwebema showed he's coming back strong following surgery to remove a tumor from his chest. Iwebema lifted and pancaked Steelers right tackle Jason Capizzi on one play. He was a force against the run on another.
 
  Rick Stewart/Getty Images
  Limas Sweed hauls in one of his two receptions in Thursday night's game.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was pleased with his team's preseason debut, and his satisfaction went much deeper than the final score.

The Steelers defeated the Arizona Cardinals, 20-10, in a Super Bowl rematch at Heinz Field. The game doesn't count in the standings but it did provide some insight into what to look forward to in the coming months.

Here are five observations:

1. Sweed up to speed

Perhaps the biggest winner in Pittsburgh's preseason opener was second-year receiver Limas Sweed. After struggling with drops and concentration during his rookie year, Sweed has a lot to prove this summer as he tries to fill a role in the Steelers' offense.

Sweed made an early and convincing claim for the vacant No. 3 receiver spot by recording two catches for 56 yards. Both were difficult receptions, as the first was leaping over the middle in traffic and the second was a 45-yard reception where Sweed made a late adjustment.

"Just like in practice," said Sweed, who has made plays throughout training camp. "I saw the ball, got it at the highest point and made a play."

2. Rookies are productive

When you think of high-profile draft classes, the Steelers are not the first team to come to mind. Coming off a Super Bowl victory, they had the final pick in most rounds and made just one selection on the first day.

But Pittsburgh's 2009 rookie class looked strong against the Cardinals. First-round pick Evander "Ziggy" Hood recorded a sack in the second half. Third-round receiver Mike Wallace caught two passes for 35 yards and returned a kickoff for an additional 35 yards, and rookie cornerback Joe Burnett intercepted a pass that set up a fourth-quarter touchdown.

"I feel like I did pretty good," Wallace said of his NFL debut. "But I still missed a couple things. I need to go back to training camp in Latrobe, watch this film, learn from it and not make the same mistakes next week."

3. Sepulveda boosts special teams

 Sepulveda

Punter Daniel Sepulveda was all smiles after being back on the field for the first time in about 20 months with a knee injury. The home crowd of 58,330 was excited, too. Sepulveda received one of the biggest ovations of the night when he stepped on the field.

"It's nice to be well-received liked that," Sepulveda said afterwards. "But I'm surprised they didn't wait until after the kick."

Sepulveda stayed busy during his first game back with six punts averaging 49.5 yards per attempt. Two of his kicks were placed inside the 20. It was the type of punting not seen in Heinz Field during last year's Super Bowl run.

4. Offensive line still looks shaky

Although the offense played just two series, that was long enough to see a few missed assignments on the offensive line. Arizona's starting defense was able to get decent pressure on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who finished 4-for-6 for 33 yards. He wasn't sacked but had to scramble on occasion.

"We still have some things to work on," Pittsburgh left tackle Max Starks said. "We need to shore up some protection things."

The running game also didn't look stout early as Rashard Mendenhall had nine carries for 24 yards (2.7 average) with the starting offense. On several of Mendenhall's carries, he was hit at or behind the line of scrimmage.

5. Dixon gets extended look

It was obvious that Pittsburgh's coaching staff wanted to get an extended look at second-year quarterback Dennis Dixon. He played nearly three quarters and finished 10 of 19 for 112 yards.

Dixon showed some good things. He had good chemistry with backup receiver Shaun McDonald (six catches, 69 yards) in the second half. But it's clear Dixon still has some work to do if he wants to be the No. 2 quarterback this season.

Veteran Charlie Batch was 1 of 2 for 45 yards and has the edge right now to backup Roethlisberger. Batch played sparingly Thursday after throwing in his first game since breaking his collarbone last season.

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