Sean Spence – He didn't have an A+ game but deserves gold for enduring that hideous knee injury. Spence made five tackles (one for a loss) on defense and one on special teams, and flashed his speed and instincts on a wide flip to the tailback on third-and-1. Spence ran down the runner after a 2-yard gain. Spence also made the key block on Chris Rainey's 78-yard punt return for a touchdown that was called back on a questionable block by Will Allen. Steelers fans saw how well-liked Spence is by the vets, who went on the field to encourage him before the cart took him away.
Chris Rainey – In today's episode of "Growing Up Pouncey" … yeah, OK, no one thinks that's funny anymore (if they ever did), but if you read my blog entry from Thursday you read that I asked Rainey about his pitiful 4.2 average on punt returns and asked him when he was going to pop one. Rainey said "It's coming soon" and to make a point he did it twice last night. In winning his second gold, Rainey traveled 78 and 90 yards to the end zone on the punt returns. They were called back because of fouls that barely helped, if at all, and after the game Rainey made the perfect comment: "They don't count anyway." But they do count in the mind of coach Mike Tomlin, who now knows he has a punt returner to replace Antonio Brown. Also noteworthy was the first play in which Rainey lined up at fullback and motioned wide. He ran the wrong route, but the play is a sign of things to come for the 4½th receiver.
Charlie Batch – Coming into the game, after examining who will be the game-day actives and whether there were enough left to play on special teams (there are), I wrote down the names of four players who could commandeer that 53rd roster spot, and Batch was one of them (with Corbin Bryant, Baron Batch and Adrian Robinson). The Steelers can tab the best athlete of the four and C-Batch certainly made a strong bid by completing 11 of 14 passes for 102 yards and a beautiful 37-yard touchdown pass to …
Emmanuel Sanders – He made a diving touchdown catch between two defenders to not only garner his second gold of the preseason, but most likely secured the starting split end job in the opener. Tomlin will have a difficult time demoting Sanders in place of Mike Wallace after Sanders's outstanding offseason, but Tomlin won't have to base his decision on Sanders' hard work alone because the third-year player proved again last night that he can carry it over to the field.
Baron Batch – I tried to ignore this guy early to counter all of the hyperbole from last year over one good drill – that I had missed. But what he showed those reporters in that blocking drill is what I've seen over and over this preseason: sound fundamentals. B-Batch medaled when he made a key block on the right side of Rainey's 78-yard return and then hustled down the field to provide an escort into the end zone. And Batch runs well enough in the Steelers' scheme after growing up as a spread back. He's a winning player in the Mewelde Moore mold.
Damon Cromartie-Smith – I tried to ignore this guy, too, as I frothed over rookie Robert Golden. But guess what? Perseverance paid off for DC-S, who didn't commit a penalty that brought back a touchdown, or pull his hamstring, as the other backup safeties combined to do last night. So he could be the winner at safety by default, but, really, he's a hitter and his size makes him a quality special-teams player. Was one of six Steelers with a team-high 5 tackles last night.
David Paulson – I watched this guy get abused – and it seemed as if it was done for the entertainment of the veterans – in the backs/tight ends- on-backers drill. For instance, Lawrence Timmons got a 10-yard head start and just flattened Paulson. But he got up and didn't say a word. A week later in practice, Paulson went up and over Timmons to catch a deep pass – an image Tomlin won't be able to get out of his head any time soon. He's a tough kid and it doesn't appear that the stage bothers him. Why should it? He was a clutch player for contending Oregon the last few years. And, oh, yeah, he can block. This seventh-rounder has to make the team.
Weslye Saunders – He dove to catch a 6-yard touchdown catch that turned out to be the game-winner, but Saunders won a job a day or so earlier when he concluded a training camp that started with yet another minor injury but picked up steam as he quietly and consistently hit the practice field and performed. Saunders likely will ride out his three-game suspension and then return to the Steelers. He might even knock Leonard Pope off the roster, and then none of us will ever again be subjected to the frightening sight of Pope trying to turn upfield after catching a screen pass behind the line of scrimmage.
Will Johnson – The rookie fullback becomes the fourth different Johnson to medal this preseason. The speed and hands I've been writing about were finally revealed when Johnson reeled in a pass from Charlie Batch for 27 yards on a wheel route that teams will have to prepare for. And Johnson's lead-blocking was much better last night. He's another surprise who should make this roster.
Marshall Mcfadden – It's probably goodbye to the 1-year player out of Donnie Shell's South Carolina State, but until the cuts are handed down today he and Brandon Hicks are still in a roster fight to replace Spence at inside linebacker/special teams. Hicks, in my opinion, had the better summer, so McFadden's consolation is this bronze medal he won for blowing up Carolina's running back for a 4-yard loss on the Panthers' final possession. McFadden had 4 tackles last night while Hicks didn't have any.
Shaun Suisham – Don't knock the kickoffs because I have a hunch he was asked to provide for returns and thus coaching analysis. He did kick a 49-yard field goal into the open end of Heinz Field to finish the preseason 3 for 3.
Al Woods – If I were putting the roster together, Woods would be kept as a swing DE/reserve NT for Steve McLendon, because it doesn't appear to me that Casey Hampton is close to being ready. But, if I were betting, I would say the Steelers will do with Hampton what they did with Aaron Smith last season and allow him to work his way into worthwhile shape. They won't cut Hampton since he took a pay cut, so by numbers Woods is in a bad spot, in spite of his QB pressure (when Spence was injured) and a stuff at the goal line.
Honorable mentions go out to Cortez Allen for playing at least three full quarters and coming in to stop the two-point conversion; to John Malecki for having to be the "reps guy" all summer while the starting defensive tackles got their work, and then turning into a serviceable interior player; to Josh Victorian for his open-field tackle that says something about his ability to cover kicks; to Adrian Robinson for showing he can play the run like James Harrison; to Jerrod Johnson for looking better throwing last night than Dennis Dixon ever did; and finally to Ron Rivera for going for two. Those working at Heinz Field will never forget you for that.