The Pittsburgh Steelers played a much scrappier, much more competitive game of football in the 19-16 win against the Buffalo Bills. A lot of young players stepped up once again as the fights for roster spots intensify.
Here’s a look at what we learned from Saturday night’s matchup.
No one emerging as favorite in backup quarterback competition
This should have been the year that Landry Jones began making the move to overtake Bruce Gradkowski as the top understudy for Ben Roethlisberger. Instead, Gradkowski has solidified his spot as Jones has pushed himself toward the roster bubble.
Jones’ anemic performances have done nothing to inspire confidence. He hasn’t asserted himself as the signal caller, something that is much more disturbing than any of his statistics. A quarterback has to take charge of his unit and lead it. Jones has looked like a player being dragged along by the rest of the offense.
While it would be a shock to see a player like Jones let go because of a bad preseason, if there’s a promising backup on the scrap heap after roster cuts happen, Pittsburgh might want to at least check in on some of the other young options. The pressure will be on Jones to stop that from happening.
Stock update on young players
Once again, young players stepped up on both sides of the ball. Ryan Shazier was the star of the defense in the first half. Playing in his first NFL game after sitting out Pittsburgh’s first game with an injury, Pittsburgh’s first-round draft choice lit up the stat sheet with a catch-and-run interception and 11 total tackles. The battle between Shazier and Sean Spence is going to the wire.
Later in the game, the hero was once again Howard Jones. An unknown entity before camp, Jones has inserted himself into the conversation for the final linebacker spot. Against New York, he scored a touchdown that briefly put Pittsburgh in the lead. This week, his fumble recovery and return set up the game-winning field goal.
Other youngsters making the most of their opportunities against the Bills were Dri Archer (44 yards receiving), Markus Wheaton (1 TD), and Robert Golden, who recovered a fumble and caught an interception.
WR corps beginning to take shape
After Antonio Brown, the receiving corps is wide open. Markus Wheaton and Lance Moore are assured of spots on the final roster, but the pecking order isn’t determined. There were plenty of opportunities to step up against Buffalo.
Martavis Bryant is undoubtedly the player Pittsburgh would like to see emerge. He had another up and down night. He made some key plays but tipped up a pass that was intercepted late which left the door open for a Buffalo victory. That’s the kind of mistake that can’t happen in the regular season.
Kashif Moore, one of Pittsburgh’s undrafted rookies, made a nifty 12-yard catch late in the game that showed off the Connecticut product’s athleticism. He could get into the conversation if Pittsburgh isn’t sold on Bryant and their other options.
Stupid little mistakes
Mike Tomlin won’t be happy looking back at the game tape when it comes to the penalties called. Pittsburgh committed 8 penalties for 74 yards. That has to stop before the regular season.
Pittsburgh’s offensive line backups continue to struggle. They were markedly better this week, but mental lapses and quarterback pressure continue to bedevil the Steelers and directly led to Landry Jones’ fumble after he bumped into a backpedaling Mike Adams.
The return coverage units weren’t great once again and continue to be one of the more worrisome issues. Field position is a huge key to the success of this defense. Pittsburgh isn’t winning that battle yet. Buffalo’s average starting field position was decent (134 combined return yards). That’s not good enough considering the improvement from punter Brad Wing (37.2 yard average on six punts).
First-teamers seem ready
Pittsburgh’s starters were in regular season form. Most of the starting positions are settled at this point and it shows. Ben Roethlisberger tossed two touchdown passes, including a 76-yard romp by Antonio Brown, and looked poised behind an offensive line that kept him clean.
Defensively, Ryan Shazier showed that there’s a competitive positional battle for the inside linebacker spot. The defense around him improved from an already-impressive first effort and looks to be poised for a return to the league’s top eight units. They contained a speedy, athletic offensive unit and held them to six first-half points.
The key will be coming out of the gate strong. Pittsburgh’s 0-4 start severely handicapped them last year. They already seem more prepared for the season and should only get better after seeing more action against Philadelphia on Thursday night. If the performance by the starters is any indication of the team’s current form, this team should improve upon last year’s 8-8 record.