Having watched the past two Steelers’ pre-season efforts, I am optimistic about the season ahead. I took the drubbing of the Texans with a grain of salt. I wanted to see more, against some more serious talent. The Eagles provided that test, even with their depleted linebacker corps and bearing in mind that these games don’t count. They have some serious talent. (Rush Limbaugh aside, I consider Donovan McNabb some serious talent. And, when Terrell Owens is not being a dick—and sometimes, when he is—he is seriously talented.)
In the Eagle game, I saw a lot of positive things for the Steelers. Tommy Maddox looked sharp behind a revamped offensive line that promises a bruising running game and enhanced pass protection. Duce Staley added an extra dimension to the running game, which had been de-emphasized last season. Bettis, too, looked comfortable and fit. So did Plaxico Burress, who apparently was true to his word about rocking up and being in game shape. His early circus catch, today an ESPN SportsCenter highlight, demonstrated that the latent talent we knew was there these past few years might finally develop. Antawan Randle El put on some moves that promise a very entertaining season. The defense looked solid, except in one area, an area that has been a problem of late.
That area is the defensive secondary. Last year’s much heralded draft choice, Troy Palomalu, was supposed to add some life to the secondary. He might do so—he is starting this year—but they need more help. Chad Scott was continually beaten by Terrell Owens. Now, Owens is a big and talented wide receiver, but he isn’t the fastest or slipperiest in the league. Both corners are suspect. Deshea Townsend has never shown me much. Now, with Dick LeBeau back, these guys are going to be doing some pretty ambitious blitzing. Used to work pretty well when Rod Woodson was at the corner, but how will these guys handle it? One indication of how well the secondary blitzes worked was the play in which McNabb got loose for a 20-yard gain when he should have been snuffed in the backfield—with Polamalu chasing him. On another, similar play, I believe it was Ike Taylor who tried to shoulder tackle McNabb, which worked about as well as a one-armed man trying to grab a greased pig. The secondary needs work, both in pass coverage and in their blitz packages.
In rookie watch, Ben Roethlisberger showed that he can make mistakes, which is good. Better he should make them in the pre-season, and early in his pro career. Those of us who have been around the Steelers for a while can remember another first-round draft pick who made tons of mistakes in his first season. He later vindicated himself, and is now in the NFL Hall of Fame. His name is Terry Bradshaw. It is obviously premature to put Roethlisberger in the same category, but what he has shown thus far is that he is a cool customer with a rifle arm and good field vision. According to what I have read, he is a natural leader and respected in the huddle in the locker room. But don’t look for Maddox to move aside soon. Aside from Tommy looking pretty sharp in the pre-season, Roethlisberger—as does any rookie—has a lot to learn before he can step into a starting NFL quarterback assignment.
Having observed this performance against the Eagles, which by the way, the Steelers won 27–21, I am encouraged and optimistic about the season ahead.