Pittsburgh Steelers: Mike Mitchell
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said that will change.
LeBeau dismissed the notion that Mitchell, who signed a five-year, $25 million contract in March, is off to a slow start because he is getting used to playing with Polamalu.
"It’s still football," LeBeau said. "He’s in a new environment and a new system, and I think he’s only going to get better and better and more comfortable. But he’s always been a good football player and he’s playing good football right now."
The Steelers' defense has been anything but good following a strong first half in the season opener against the Browns.
The Steelers have given up 50 points in their past six quarters, and they haven’t been able to stop the run.
The Steelers are yielding 170.0 rushing yards per game, but LeBeau said the problems they had had stopping the run can be fixed.
"We’ve got to quit shooting ourselves in the foot. Most of the runs we have given up we haven’t gotten in our detailed assignments enough," LeBeau said. "The guys are working on that and we’ve got to get it done. You’re not going to give up those kinds of runs and be successful."
The Pittsburgh Steelers have to start forcing opposing offenses into low-percentage situations, something they didn’t do at all on two 12-play drives that resulted in the Ravens’ touchdowns on Thursday night.
The Ravens faced a total of just four third downs on their touchdown drives. None was longer than 4 yards, and Dick LeBeau’s defense is predicated on stopping the run and putting teams in obvious passing situations.
“If you can make a team one-dimensional, it’s so much easier to play the game,” Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell said. "But if you’re in third-and-1s and third-and-2s [offenses] can do whatever they want. We can’t continue to play teams where they can run and pass on us.“
The Steelers actually fared well when they put the Ravens significantly behind the chains. Baltimore did not convert a third down longer than 6 yards in its 26-6 win over Pittsburgh, and it was just 5-of-12 in third-down percentage.
The problem for the Steelers is they consistently gave up yards in chunks because of a combination of shoddy tackling and players not staying in their assigned gaps on running plays.
That allowed the Ravens to stay away from third-and-long situations for much of the game.
“I think it’s new faces, new guys understanding new techniques, new responsibilities,” veteran defensive end Brett Keisel said about why the Steelers have struggled on defense. “It’s a hard transition, but it’s a transition that has to happen.”
It won't get any easier against the 2-0 Panthers, who are coming off an impressive 24-7 home win over the Detroit Lions.
They appeared to improve themselves with the signings of a handful of outside free agents. But two games into the season the Steelers have not gotten the return they had hoped for from those investments.
Here is a look at the free agents the Steelers signed, and all analysis is prefaced with the caveat that it is way too early to draw any sweeping conclusions.
Also, punter Adam Podlesh did not report to training camp because of a family issue. That certainly takes priority over football, so he is not included in this look at the free agents that Steelers signed.
RB LeGarrette Blount: The former Patriot hasn't gotten on the field much in large part because Le'Veon Bell has been the Steelers' best player through the season's first two weeks. Blount, who signed a two-year, $3.85 million contract, has rushed for just 14 yards and a touchdown on seven carries. Blount's carries will be limited if Bell keeps playing so well, but the 6-foot, 250-pounder is still nice injury insurance at running back. And the Steelers are going to need him at some point this season.
WR Lance Moore: The former Saint has yet to play a snap after signing a two-year, $3.5 million contract. Moore has been hampered by a nagging groin injury, and the Steelers really need him to get healthy and give them a reliable No. 3 wide receiver. Moore's career suggests the ninth-year veteran could thrive working the middle of the field -- and benefiting from the extra attention teams pay to Pro Bowler Antonio Brown and the emerging Markus Wheaton.
CB Brice McCain: The former Houston Texan signed a veteran's minimum contract ($635,000 salary cap hit for one season) with the Steelers to provide depth and play special teams. McCain missed the season opener because of a groin injury and he only played special teams last Thursday in the Steelers' 26-6 loss to the Ravens.
WR Darrius Heyward-Bey: The veteran speedster played his way onto the roster but has yet to make a catch. I'm a little surprised Heyward-Bey, who signed a veteran's minimum contract, didn't get more snaps at wide receiver with Moore out. If the first two games are any indication, Heyward-Bey will play primarily on special teams, which means the Steelers could look to rookie Martavis Bryant to provide a deep threat now that he is healthy.
And not the three they committed last Thursday, including a lost fumble that snuffed out an opening drive that should have resulted in at least three points.
The Steelers have not forced a turnover in two games, and such a statistic would not mean too much standing on its own since the 2014 season is still in its infancy.
But the Steelers have not fielded an opportunistic defense since 2010, the last time they played in the Super Bowl, and Brett Keisel is at a loss to explain why.
“I wish I knew the answer to that because you guys have been asking that for a while,” the veteran defensive end said.
The questions, Keisel would be the first to admit, are justified.
The Steelers forced 35 turnovers in 2010, and they erased a double-digit halftime lead against the Ravens in an AFC divisional playoff game with a couple of game-changing takeaways in the third quarter.
Since 2010, the Steelers have averaged a tick under 20 takeaways per season.
They had 20 last season -- none during a disastrous 0-4 September -- and if the start of 2014 is any indication the Steelers are still trying to figure out how to win the crucial turnover battle.
“They kind of just happen,” free safety Mike Mitchell said of takeaways. “You capitalize when you have an opportunity.”
The Steelers missed an opportunity early in the fourth quarter last Thursday night when they were still in the game.
A blitzing Ryan Shazier forced Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to make an ill-advised throw near the goal line that cornerback Cortez Allen had a chance to intercept. Allen made a nice play on the ball but he couldn’t pick it off and the Ravens kicked a short field to increase their lead to 20-6.
The catch was a tough one for Allen but the Steelers have to make those plays if they want to start generating turnovers.
“They’re going to come,” defensive end Cameron Heyward said after the 26-6 loss to the Ravens. “I’m not going to worry about that. We were in position a bunch of times. We just have to finish them.”
“We’ve got to give our offense the ball,” he said, “and give them short fields and put points on the board.”
Until the Steelers start doing that the question will persist as to why the defense has not been more opportunistic.
And away we go ...
@ScottBrown_ESPN: I think it's personnel more than anything. Not to give Dick LeBeau a pass, because either opposing teams have figured him out or he has to adjust his schemes to fit his players. I refuse to believe the game has passed him by, but LeBeau is arguably facing his greatest challenge as the Steelers' defensive coordinator, because I'm not sure how much talent he has with which to work. Name the difference-makers on the Steelers' defense. Linebacker Lawrence Timmons and maybe defensive Cameron Heyward qualify. Linebacker Ryan Shazier will become one, but he is going through the typical rookie growing pains right now. The biggest problem the Steelers have defensively right now is they are not winning up front. They have to fix that and work from there. And last I checked, LeBeau, a Hall of Fame cornerback, hasn't made a tackle in decades. The Steelers, as a whole, have to do a better job of tackling, and that is incumbent upon the players.
@ScottBrown_ESPN when are they going to realize that the no huddle works for them?— Dane (@Urunderarrest) September 12, 2014
@ScottBrown_ESPN: The Steelers used a silent snap count on Thursday night, and maybe the crowd noise was too much of a factor for them to use the no-huddle on the road. And, to be fair, the Steelers didn't have trouble moving the ball against the Ravens. They just killed themselves with turnovers, a couple of untimely penalties and some missed passes that Ben Roethlisberger usually completes in his sleep. I'm not sure how much the Steelers will use the no-huddle next Sunday since they are playing at Carolina. But if the offense struggles early, they will have to try something to shake things up.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: Tough to argue with you, but I would play Brett Keisel at defensive end in the base defense instead of Cam Thomas and get Stephon Tuitt snaps when the Steelers go to the nickel. I think Tuitt will play more as the season progresses, but right now Keisel is their second best defensive lineman. I'm not sure what the Steelers were thinking in waiting so long to bring Keisel back -- and thinking Thomas is starter material at defensive end after he lost his starting job at nose tackle last season in San Diego. It's still early, but Thomas looks best suited to provide depth at defensive end and nose tackle, something Al Woods did last season.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: I think the Steelers signed Thomas as a stop-gap with the hopes that he could hold down a starting job until a younger defensive end was ready to take over opposite Heyward. It's not like the Steelers paid a ton of money for him, but certainly they expected more from Thomas than what they have gotten through the first two weeks of the season. No question the Steelers have to improve up front or they don't have a chance defensively. Everything with LeBeau's defense starts with stopping the run. They have been gashed in the first two games by Terrence West, Isaiah Crowell, Bernard Piece and Justin Forsett. Yikes.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: I think the offense is going to be good, and that it is simply going through a rough spot at a bad time. The return of Lance Moore, assuming the ninth-year veteran is able to play next Sunday night at Carolina, will be huge. Justin Brown isn't ready to play as many snaps as he has been getting and Moore is the kind of savvy veteran who should thrive as the Steelers' No. 3 wide receiver or at least be productive. More problematic is the defense. The Steelers haven't been able to stop the run or put consistent pressure on the quarterback. They have yet to force a turnover in two games, and free safety Mike Mitchell, their prized free-agent signing this year, has really struggled. Yeah, other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? I'm still standing by my prediction of 10-6 for the Steelers, because I think the offense will start to carry the team and that the defense will improve as the season progresses. But, as you know, there is a fine line between 10-6 and 8-8 -- and even 10-6 and 6-10..
But Roethlisberger had some interesting things to say in the NFL Network interview that aired prior to the Steelers-Ravens game Thursday night.
"But I think the Pittsburghers appreciate me. I think that it's going to be one of those things when I'm done playing people will look back and say, 'Wow, he was a lot better than we gave him credit for,'" Roethlisberger said. "I've won two Super Bowls, I've been to three. There are a lot of greats that have never been and have never won. I'm just going to continue giving everything I have and try and get back and when another one."
The Steelers are coming off consecutive 8-8 seasons and have looked like anything but a playoff team through the first two weeks of the season.
Roethlisberger represents the biggest hope the Steelers have of re-establishing themselves as Super Bowl contenders. If that doesn't happen it won't be because of a perception of a strained relationship with offensive coordinator Todd Haley, the veteran quarterback said.
"People made a big deal about us not liking each other or getting along -- that wasn't it at all. It's just a new transition thing," Roethlisberger said. "Now I think that we're starting to really understand each other. I think that things are going well."
Here are a few odds and ends with the Steelers off until Monday:
- The Steelers were determined not to give up the deep ball against the Ravens, but at what cost? The Steelers held Ravens deep threat Torrey Smith to one catch for 10 yards last Thursday night and Joe Flacco's longest completion was 24 yards. That came on a pass to tight end Dennis Pitta in the middle of the field where the Ravens exploited a defense that wanted to keep everything in front of it. "I know I worked hard this week staying deep," Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell said. "Coach [Carnell] Lake worked with me a lot playing everything top down so we had a lot of great coverages. Our corners did a great job of staying on top. We forced [the Ravens] to check it down."
- The Steelers came out of the Ravens game in relatively good shape from an injury standpoint. Nose tackle Steve McLendon hurt his shoulder but coach Mike Tomlin said that was the only the potentially significant injury that the Steelers sustained.
- Tomlin did not buy into the thinking that a lost fumble by wide receiver Justin Brown on the opening possession set the tone for the mistake-prone Steelers against the Ravens. "It's a game of 60 minutes," Tomlin said. "The outcome of the game's not going to be defined in the initial moments of the game, whether it's positive or negative."
Just as Justin Brown’s lost fumble inside the Ravens’ 20-yard line portended the kind of night it would be for an offense that hasn’t scored a touchdown in six quarters, the Steelers’ defense drew two flags on the Ravens’ first play from scrimmage.
The penalty the Ravens accepted – a 15-yard face-mask call on cornerback Cortez Allen – helped turn a short reception by Steve Smith into a 29-yard gain.
Two games into the season, penalties are a problem for the Steelers -- and the problem is not confined to one side of the ball.
They have had 20 penalties assessed against them and a handful more declined. The Steelers' 10 penalties a game is double the number of penalties they averaged last season.
And their 85.5 penalty yards per game is more than double the penalty yards (42.3) the Steelers averaged last season.
“We’ve got to play technically and cleaner,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
The spike in penalties will be an indictment of Tomlin and his staff and – just as troubling -- a reflection of a decline in talent if it continues.
It is too early to call it a trend, but the defense hasn’t played well enough, dating to last season, to earn a pass either for the five penalties assessed against it Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium.
Two of the penalties came on the Ravens’ opening drive, which resulted in a touchdown, and both were committed by Allen.
Allen, who signed a five-year, $26.2 million contact last Saturday, had 38 penalty yards on Baltimore’s first drive compared to 24 passing yards by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
Numbers like that explain why the Ravens beat the Steelers soundly -- and why the Steelers were lucky to lose by only 20 points.
Sure, there were a couple of questionable unnecessary roughness calls on Troy Polamalu and Mike Mitchell on the Ravens’ second touchdown drive.
But a roughing-the-passer call on Ravens outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw extended the Steelers’ first drive and Baltimore was able to overcome that.
The Steelers, meanwhile, did too many things to beat themselves, starting with turnovers and penalties.
When asked how to correct the latter, Polamalu said, “Just work on playing cleaner, practicing better.”
They don’t have a lot of time to fix what coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged were communication problems from the sideline to the players and from the players to one another as the Browns went up and down the field after halftime.
Pittsburgh has just three days to prepare for a Thursday night game at Baltimore, and the Ravens will surely look closely at the success the Browns had in the second half against the Steelers.
The Browns piled up 288 yards in the second half and erased a 24-point halftime deficit while running and throwing the ball with equal success.
They kept the Steelers defense on its heels by running a no-huddle attack almost exclusively after halftime. The surprise with the confusion that the no-huddle offense caused is that the Steelers defense practiced extensively against it in training camp and the preseason.
“We’ve had some good days,” Tomlin said of the Steelers practicing against the no-huddle. “Obviously, [Sunday] was not one. We’re not going to let [Sunday] define us by any stretch.”
The Steelers defense should get a chance to redeem itself against the no-huddle offense Thursday.
The Ravens used it in the second half of their 23-16 loss to the Bengals on Sunday to change the tempo of the game. They went no-huddle on eight of the 10 plays that covered 82 yards in the third quarter and resulted in the Ravens’ first touchdown.
The communication issues that hampered the Steelers in the second half against the Browns are disconcerting since defenses tend to stay more basic when the opposing offense is in no-huddle mode.
Three new players -- rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, defensive end Cam Thomas and free safety Mike Mitchell -- started on defense in the season opener. But Tomlin would not use that as a crutch for why confusion reigned in the second half against the Browns.
“The big thing is we’ve got to communicate it [since] communication is integral to execution,” Tomlin said. “We were [lined up] where we were supposed to be, but based on some of the results of those snaps, I can’t say that we were ready.”
One of the challenges for new Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell is making sure he is in sync with Polamalu, who has long held a license to freelance as long as it doesn’t compromise the rest of the defense.
“It’s not like that at all,” Mitchell said. “Troy does a great job of communicating with me on every single play. We talk about alerts we might be doing and if we are going to massage the defense a little bit. There are no surprises out there.”
Mitchell added that he and Polamalu use “a lot of hand signals” to make sure each knows what the other one is going to do. The sixth-year safety dismissed the notion that there will be a significant adjustment period for him as he plays in a third different defense in as many seasons.
“I feel prepared," said Mitchell, who signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Steelers in March. “I’m continuing to learn the defense and where everyone fits. I definitely know what I’m doing, but to know where everyone fits, that’s when you can really massage some things and make some plays. I’ll be able to execute just fine.”
The Steelers need Mitchell to make some plays after they forced just 20 turnovers last season and recorded 34 sacks.
Taking the ball away has become an issue for the Steelers since they forced the second-most turnovers (35) in the NFL in 2010. Since that season, the Steelers have the fewest takeaways (55) in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The Steelers signed Mitchell, who intercepted four passes for the Carolina Panthers in 2013, to help change that.
Mitchell had a shaky preseason, but he said he is ready to go with the season opener against the visiting Browns two days away.
“The preseason’s extremely important but this is what we get paid for -- winning these games,” Mitchell said, “and I look forward to playing in this game on Sunday.”
But the Pittsburgh Steelers free safety took as diplomatic a route as possible when asked about the flurry of flags the NFL’s emphasis on calling pass interference and illegal contact has produced in the preseason.
“I thought we would get more offensive calls but I don’t have any negative opinions, positive opinions,” Mitchell said. “I just play the game the way I’m supposed to.”
The game has become increasingly harder to play for defensive backs with the league trying to minimize the amount of shoving and grabbing that takes place beyond the 5-yard zone in which contact is allowed.
Pass interference and illegal contact penalties called on defensive backs are up across the board, and the Steelers were flagged six times for those penalties in a 31-21 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday night.
The conventional thinking is that both infractions are being rigorously enforced in the preseason so players can adjust to the point of emphasis in the regular season. Whether penalties for illegal contact and pass interference will subside once the games start counting remains to be seen.
Gay was flagged twice for defensive holding in Philadelphia though the eighth-year veteran did not grouse about one of the NFL’s point of emphasis two days after the loss to the Eagles.
“Flags have been thrown since the game started so we just try to work on our skills and get better for the season,” Gay said. “The refs have a job. We have a job.”
Included in the point of emphasis on passing plays is watching for wide receiver who push off to gain an advantage. But if the Steelers’ first three preseason games are any indication the bulk of the calls for illegal contact have been made against defensive backs.
“They’re saying we’re going to have to adjust our game, kind of like the hitting up high, but it’s just so hard to do," Mitchell said. “Someone pushes you, you usually pull them but if you’re calling it every time you pull but you’re not calling it every time you push it’s going to be hard. It’s an offensive league, that’s kind of what they want. We just all have to adjust our games to play accordingly.”
And away we go...
@ScottBrown_ESPN Has to be the performance in Philadelphia given how lacking it was across the board. Not to minimize the stupidity and selfishness of Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount but let's be honest: They aren't the first players to get arrested and they won't be the last ones to get arrested. I don't think it has been or will be much of a distraction. The bigger concern is whether Bell and Blount will "get it" and toe the line moving forward. The more immediate worry for the Steelers is whether the one preseason games that matters -- and I realize that is a bit of an oxymoron -- is an indicator of how they will play this season. I may be more forgiving than others but I tend to give the Steelers a pass for one preseason game. I am going to need to see more before I fire Todd Haley and Dick LeBeau, cut Jarvis Jones and put Mike Tomlin on the hot seat after how bad the Steelers looked against the Eagles.
@ScottBrown_ESPN no questions statement do you really want to b playing ur best football wk3 of preseason. It's a long yr and will improve.— Tony Ciuffo (@TonyCiuffo) August 22, 2014
@ScottBrown_ESPN I'm with you Tony -- to a degree. I don't want to overreact to one loss in a preseason game but man some red flags were raised by the Steelers' showing in Philadelphia. It wasn't just LeSean McCoy who ran all over the Steelers. He left the game in the first quarter and the Steelers still couldn't stop the run. The Steelers didn't fare any better after Eagles starting quarterback Nick Foles, who threw for 179 yards and a touchdown and outdueled Ben Roethlisberger, gave way to Mark Sanchez. It would be a lot easier to dismiss what happened in Philadelphia if the starters on both sides of the ball had not played so extensively. But it was disconcerting to see the Steelers have such a bad game across the board with their regulars playing as much as they did. I will give the Steelers the benefit of the doubt -- for now.
@ScottBrown_ESPN I can't argue with you Bob. What does it say about how poorly the Steelers played when Troy Polamalu's voice is among the loudest of the defensive players who were shouting at each other on the sidelines in the third quarter of that game? That just doesn't happen, and it occurred in a preseason game no less. Also consider this when I asked Polamalu if the Steelers had game-planned for their third preseason game: "Not really," he said. "If we did I don't know that it would have mattered anyway." I will leave it at that.
@ScottBrown_ESPN Great question but Troy Polamalu is not primarily a cover guy and never has been. The Steelers presumably upgraded at free safety so Polamalu could continue in his current role and not take on more coverage responsibilities on the back end of the defense. No question that Mike Mitchell has been shaky. But let's let this thing play out a little bit before we question whether the Steelers' most significant offseason signing will be a liability on the back end of the defense. It is critical that Mitchell play well at free safety since it looks like Polamalu may be needed more in run support with teams averaging 4.8 yards per carry against the Steelers' in three preseason games.
@ScottBrown_ESPN My question, how big a bust is Jarvis Jones?— RAVENSHATER4LIFE (@yinzer2009) August 22, 2014
@ScottBrown_ESPN I'm not ready to go there. Not even close. I think you need at least three years before you can evaluate a draft class and the players in it. That said, the Steelers expect Jones to make a big jump in his second season and there are no excuses for the 2013 first-round pick this year. He has had enough time in the Steelers' defense to play fast instead of thinking too much. Jones also had an offseason to get stronger, something that should also help him on the field. He did not play well in the Steelers' 31-21 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles and Jones gets a little bit of a pass since he matched up against Jason Peters, one of the top left tackles in the NFL. But there is no question that he has to emerge as an impact player this season, and my biggest question with Jones is whether he will ever be a difference-maker on the Steelers' defense. I've just not seen it from him as a pass-rusher. He has also struggled against the run.
Players on the roster: Troy Polamalu, Mike Mitchell, Shamarko Thomas, Will Allen, Robert Golden, Jordan Dangerfield and Ross Ventrone.
Projected number on 53-man roster: Five. Golden makes the team based on his special teams play in the past and the strides the third-year man has made at safety. If the Steelers only keep four safeties, they will have a tough decision to make between Golden and Allen.
Rookie watch: The Steelers don't have any rookies but first-year man Jordan Dangerfield opened eyes in training camp and is a strong candidate for the practice squad, which has been increased from eight to 10 players for all teams. The 5-11, 200-pounder is a fearless hitter and he seems to be around the ball a lot in practice.
What we learned in camp: The Steelers tried to preserve Polamalu as much as possible, holding him out of live tackling drills as well as their first preseason game. Polamalu said he feels a little better from a physical standpoint going into this season, which certainly is a positive. Mitchell hasn’t had the easiest of transitions as he missed the first week of camp because of a groin injury and then stood out for two plays in preseason games for the wrong reasons. Mitchell took a bad angle on New York Giants running back Rashad Jennings’ 73-yard touchdown run in the preseason opener. Last Saturday against the Buffalo Bills he was penalized for taunting after a tackle he didn’t even make. Thomas looks like he is ready to make the kind of jump the Steelers expect between a player’s first and second seasons. The Polamalu protégé -- and eventual successor -- should be the No. 3 safety this season.
He said it: “We’ve made a lot of plays this camp, which is nice. But I don’t get infatuated, honestly with what happens in camp, I really don’t. There’s a lot of guys you see in preseasons that stand out in camp, more than you see stand out in the regular season, so I don’t get too infatuated with guys that are really making plays.” -- Polamalu.
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers' first-team offense needed less than five minutes to score two touchdowns, and one of those came on a 67-yard catch-and-run by Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Yet the story of the night at Heinz Field was the Steelers’ defense -- and specifically a prized rookie who is on his way to becoming one of the faces of a unit that is in transition.
Inside linebacker Ryan Shazier starred in his NFL debut, recording six tackles, two stops on special teams and an interception.
And that was just in the first quarter of the Steelers’ 19-16 win over the Buffalo Bills .
“I thought he did an awesome job,” Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons said. “I’m looking forward to playing with him.”
Shazier finished with 11 tackles despite playing a little less than a half. The 6-foot-1, 237-pound speedster answered several questions about how much a bruised knee that cost him two weeks of training camp set back the first-round pick.
The short answer: It didn’t.
Shazier was all over the field, and his interception of an EJ Manuel pass in the second quarter set up the second of Ben Roethlisberger’s two touchdown passes.
Roethlisberger played into the second quarter and looked sharp, completing 8 of 11 passes for 128 yards. The Steelers won their first preseason game since 2012 despite squandering an early 10-point lead.
Some other thoughts from the Steelers’ second preseason game:
- The starting offense line didn’t punch many holes in one of the best defensive lines in the NFL, as the Steelers rushed for just 10 yards in the first half. It did keep Roethlisberger clean and gave the 11-year veteran enough time to stand in the pocket and deliver a 16-yard touchdown pass to Markus Wheaton for the Steelers’ second score.
- The starting defense, which played more than a quarter and was missing only outside linebacker Jarvis Jones (groin), didn’t allow a touchdown. But it’s hard to tell how much of a test it received. Ballyhooed wide receiver Sammy Watkins left the game early with a rib injury and did not return. Manuel, meanwhile, is nothing more than a dink-and-dunk quarterback. The Bills have 6-10 written all over them unless Manuel makes dramatic improvement in his second season.
- Mike Mitchell might want to tone it down a little bit. The Steelers’ free safety drew a taunting penalty after jawing at Bills running back C.J. Spiller following a stop that he wasn’t even in on. Yo, Mike, you’re still the new guy in town. Better to be seen than heard for now.
- Landry Jones, the second quarterback in for the Steelers, is lucky he didn’t get yanked after throwing an interception and later losing a fumble that the Bills turned into a game-tying touchdown. Jones took a step back; 40 of his 53 passing yards came on a catch-and-run by Dri Archer, and he was sacked twice.
- A pair of undrafted rookies, defensive end Josh Mauro and outside linebacker Howard Jones, played with the second-team defense. Mauro appears to have moved past Brian Arnfelt, who played in a couple of games at the end of last season after spending most of 2013 on the Steelers’ practice squad. Mauro notched a sack in the fourth quarter after Jones helped flush Bills quarterback Jeff Tuel out of the pocket. Jones also recovered the fumble that set up Shaun Suisham's game-winning field goal.
- The first-team offense will get its first extended action of the preseason, and you can look for the starters to play at least a quarter. Ben Roethlisberger put together a nice drive in the only series the veteran quarterback played last Saturday night against the Giants, but the Steelers couldn’t finish it. They had to settle for a Shaun Suisham field goal after the offense stalled inside the Giants’ 10-yard line. “That’s certainly a trend we don’t want to start, not finishing off our drive,” tight end Heath Miller said. “We need to be better in the red zone.” The Steelers also need to be better when it comes to extending drives. They converted just 2 of 14 times on third down in the 20-16 loss to the Giants.
- All signs point to rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier playing in his first preseason game. Shazier, who didn’t play against the Giants because of a bruised knee, was a full participant in the Steelers’ final practice of training camp. The speedy Shazier has been impressive when he has been on the practice field. Now it’s time for the first-round pick to show what he can do in a game. The first-team defense should be intact with Shazier’s anticipated NFL debut and strong safety Troy Polamalu also expected to play against the Bills. Coach Mike Tomlin didn’t play Polamalu against the Giants, but the eight-time Pro Bowler needs to get some game action with new free safety Mike Mitchell.
- A number of players who showed progress in camp could make a move in the game, and that is critical to their push for a spot on the 53-man roster. Tomlin said that the last week of camp (which concluded with a pair of joint practices with the Bills at St. Vincent College) and the Steelers’ second preseason camp is when separation among players fighting for a roster spot really occurs. That should keep fans from changing the channel after the starters have been taken out of the game. Linebacker Dan Molls, who led the Steelers with nine tackles against the Giants, should see extended playing time if Vince Williams (concussion) and Jordan Zumwalt (groin) don’t play against the Bills. Other players to watch include defensive end Josh Mauro, tight end Eric Waters, running back Tauren Poole, outside linebacker Howard Jones and safety Jordan Dangerfield. “I told a couple of guys we’re calling for a third defense [in practice] and in a couple of weeks there will be no third defense,” Tomlin said earlier this week. “So if you’re on the third defense you better make a move.”
But Mitchell is tired of answering questions about whether the two will develop the rapport that is critical for players on the back end of the defense -- and especially important on the Steelers because of Polamalu’s unique playing style.
Their time on the field together has been limited as Polamalu did not take part in organized team activities, which are voluntary (OTAs), and Mitchell didn’t practice the first week of camp because of a groin injury.
The two are expected to play in their first game together Saturday night against the Buffalo Bills after coach Mike Tomlin opted to sit Polamalu in the Steelers’ preseason opener.
Mitchell, whom the Steelers signed to add speed and a playmaker on defense, appears to be settling in nicely with his new team. And he said the groin injury that happened before the start of training camp only proved to be a minor setback.
“I’m prepared,” said Mitchell, who intercepted four passes and notched 3.5 sacks for the Carolina Panthers last season. “I didn’t miss a day of OTAs. I studied every day in the summer. If the season started tomorrow I’m ready to play 16 games.”
As for his take on the Steelers’ defense with training camp ending today, Mitchell said, “I like how physical we are. We’re still growing and developing every single day. The Super Bowl winner isn’t going to be determined by how you play in preseason. It’s the team that continues to get better and better and better for 24-plus weeks.”