The Pittsburgh Steelers kicked off the new year against the Washington Redskins on Friday at Fedex Field in D.C. From this preseason starting gate will follow some hopes, dreams, screams and probably a few tears along the way. And from that starting point, this is what I saw:
* Ol' Danny boy Snyder was looking at anything but a sellout in his home stadium. As for me and my dollars, I took to protesting the ridiculous prices at his "Johnny Rocket" hamburger stands by foraging on the free food provided in the media cafeteria. In past years I have always shelled out money for a delicious triple rocket burger.
* Let's get this out of the way first: Either move the kickoff back to where it was last year or simply put the ball at the 20-yard line. When the Skins' kickoff man banged one through the uprights, I had enough of scrambling on the sidelines for a primo view of the return team only to go to commercial break.
* Tunch Ilkin and I were in the elevator with Willie Colon at the hotel the night before the game. Tunch was standing on one side of Willie, and I was on the other. I leaned forward to look around Willie at Tunch (he is one thick dude) and said, "If we double-teamed Willie, do you think he'd even notice?"
All chuckles aside, Willie used last year to get bigger and stronger. After a year's absence, Colon was a man on a mission last night. In one series, I watched Willie mulch a guy, pancake another and finish the series by clubbing a Skins D-lineman like a grizzly bear having fun with its prey before the kill on the National Geographic channel. Outstanding work put in by the Colon.
* While I'm on the line, Chris Scott got his first taste of NFL action by pulling down the starting assignment at right guard next to Willie. Typical results were had for a newbie. Tentative to start the game, got more aggressive as he got comfortable, toss in a blown assignment or two and a coup'la pressures. That adds up to a mixed results night. Remember that Tunch's first three NFL plays included a mental error, a holding call and a QB pressure. Rome wasn't built in a day, and Tunch wasn't a Pro Bowler in his first game either.
But I also saw a lot of promise in basic technique, and some serious clods of earth were torn up when Chris locked on to the right man. He attempted to finish all blocks and I look forward to watching his progress closely over the next few weeks. Chris has good strength, he's built to move some dirt and he's got very good balance when a guy tries to rag-doll him.
* Finishing up the O-line was Tony Hills. As the "Turk up in the booth" said over the airwaves, that was Tony's finest effort yet. He worked the line, shut down all pass rushers he faced, and run-blocked well. He completed the night by turning in some good work at RG in the second half.
* Antonio Brown is in regular season form in the preseason. He's been outstanding in training camp and capped off the four-catch night by knocking down a DB as Isaac Redman rumbled in from 22-yards out. He's been making the most out of Hines Ward being on the shelf with the ever dreaded "Dancer's thumb" and Manny Sanders' foot problem.
* The starting defense had a nightmare of a first quarter and change. They were facing a Mike Shanahan offensive line that featured three and five-step drops by the QB, misdirection, and turn-the-shoulders-and-run chop blocking from large prairie mammals. The Steelers against their power zone blocking line, and it was obvious early on that not only was the tackling sub-par, but the front 7 were going to have to adjust on the fly because they were used to far different blocking angles after scrimmaging against buddies. Add to that some pale vanilla coverage schemes and it was a night for Rex Grossman to look like Tom Brady.
* But let's face it, the Steelers "D" is never complete without the "Hair and the Stare" of Troy Polamalu and James Harrison (quote courtesy of Dale Lolley). With neither of these guys in the lineup, the defense isn't and couldn't be quite the same.
* Rookies Corbin Bryant, Mortty Ivy and Miguel Chavis all distinguished themselves. Bryant, a former 3-technique (outside the G's shoulder) crash-the-gap, up-the-field type guy can cut it loose when given the opportunity to blow things up. Ivy picked his way through crosstown traffic well and showed the ability to get off blocks from his LBer position, and as a DE Chavis played both the run and pass well.
* All in all, it was a sub-par, high-effort performance that drives a stake in the ground and gives the 2011 Steelers a starting point from which to begin the journey. All I know folks is I'm in for the long haul.