So Many Reasons For Optimism

The Steelers lost their preseason opener, 18-13, but they have so much for which to feel optimistic, writes Jim Wexell.

From the notebook of a sportswriter who believes Mike Tomlin's going to utilize anger from a loss while concealing joy from several uplifting aspects of his team's play:

* Start with Marcus Gilbert and David DeCastro dominating the right side of the offensive line. Gilbert may have been called for a holding penalty that crippled the first possession, led to a sack over Ramon Foster, and ultimately a blocked punt that led to a Giants field goal, but the hold by Gilbert was the result of an aggressive block that drove a linebacker out of the play and face-first into the ground. It was a display of fire from a guy who can be too passive for his size and strength.

* The line was running its base power stuff and Gilbert was having his way with rookie Johnathan Hankins, particularly on a third-and-1 play that continued a drive of 36 rushing yards and 4 passing yards. But on the next play Jonathan Dwyer dropped a screen that had Maurkice Pouncey making a block and DeCastro waiting to escort Dwyer a long way. Ben Roethlisberger had to pass the rest of the possession that ended in a tying field goal.

* While Gilbert was showing the classic power you like to see at right tackle, Mike Adams was about perfect in pass protection on the left side. It would appear the tackles are not only set, but have the potential to be pretty good.

* The obvious standout on the first-team defense was Troy Polamalu, who may even look better than the Polamalu of old. Or at least he looks stronger. He seems just as quick as ever. Polamalu blew up the Giants' goal-line series after the punt block. On the second series he burst down the line off the left edge to stop a running play.

* That Ryan Clark subsequently missed a tackle and William Gay got beat for a touchdown by Victor Cruz shouldn't diminish the fact Polamalu is in line for a great comeback season.

* That Gay was physically beaten is a fact I will continue to gloss over until Cortez Allen's knee heals.

* John Malecki worked at center with the first team and played flawlessly. He's going to be better than Doug Legursky as the primary center-guard backup.

* And Foster flashed his Chris Kemoeatu-like power pull to spring Dwyer for an 11-yard gain. Yes, there was a LOT to like about the Steelers' offensive line.

* Rookie flanker Markus Wheaton entered the field with Malecki and Bruce Gradkowski at the tail-end of the first quarter and immediately made his presence felt. Yes, his diving, foot-dragging catch was replayed and overruled to be a drop, and yes he wiped out and injured Stevenson Sylvester after Sly had made the special-teams tackle, but Wheaton was doing it all at 100 miles an hour, or the speed he flashed getting downfield as a gunner well ahead of everyone else on the first punt.

* The fact Wheaton flinched to draw illegal procedure on third down will serve to keep him under Tomlin's thumb the entire coming week. It'll be a recurring theme for many players, in fact.

* Jarvis Jones and Jason Worilds were both active as pass-rushers for the second-team defense. Jones was criticized by game announcers for letting a couple of running plays get outside of him, but it appeared that he controlled his point better than expected for a rookie in Dick LeBeau's 3-4. He understands leverage and how to use his hands and long arms to gain it.

* Worilds' sack for a 13-yard loss was correctly credited, by analyst Edmund Nelson, to the instincts of DE Cameron Heyward, who read the screen and forced David Carr to pull the ball down.

* Wheaton not only converted a fourth-and-2, he ran a reverse for 10 yards and showed off the cutting ability, and agility, that Mike Wallace never, ever showed running the same play.

* And they ran that reverse to Wallace more often than they should have.

* Yes, Robert Golden dropped a pick-six but the young CB-turned-FS came up and smacked people. This aggressiveness was diminished last season by the learning curve.

* Take a look at Worilds' back-to-back penalties that led to a Giants field goal at the end of the half. The roughing penalty was called after Worilds and Heyward simultaneously slammed into the QB a split-second after the pass. The dual-action hammers from each side perhaps played more of a factor with the official than any perceived lateness. And the personal foul was a retaliation push well behind the play that goes uncalled most of the time.

* But, again, it gives Tomlin all he needs to hound Worilds mercilessly through the final week of training camp.

* Late in the first half, with Marshall McFadden leading the way, the Steelers' reserve inside linebackers began showing why that position might just be the deepest on the team.

* Veterans such as Brian Rolle and Kion Wilson dominated from the inside in the third quarter. Rookie Vince Williams was right with them, and even the lanky, undrafted rookie ILB from WVU, Terence Garvin, continued his long shot bid by making plays.

* A week or so ago, during a backs-on-backers drill, Tomlin told Wilson to go sit down because he didn't want Wilson teeing off on the running back who had beaten Wilson the previous rep. I thought it was a first, and reflected either on Wilson's lack of respect for teammates, or a nasty demeanor that Tomlin didn't want his back dealing with. Wilson showed that nasty demeanor last night, as did Rolle, as the two vets continued what appears to be open tryouts to add some real thump inside for the Steelers.

* I don't even know what to say about the first NFL preseason snap for QB Landry Jones, but the fact he collided with his running back, fumbled into the end zone and only cost his team two points was a lucky break for him and the team.

* Justin Brown went up to make a high catch as Jones sought out his former college teammate quickly thereafter. Brown also showed some run-after-catch ability that meshes nicely with his size.

* The Giants tried to go after cornerback Isaiah Green, but he didn't allow much of anything, and even showed solid technique in breaking up a third-quarter pass.

* With the injuries at CB, Green, who has sprinter speed, has a chance to fly on to the radar and make the team.

* Undrafted rookie DE Brian Arnfelt continues to look like a keeper. Not only does he take up blockers, he showed some mobility in getting outside to make a tackle near the sideline.

* But Arnfelt was nothing next to the dominant Steeler in the second half: Al Woods.

* Woods led the Steelers with 9 tackles, and he also had a sack and another tackle-for-loss. And what certainly helped Woods was the play next to him of nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu.

* If it wasn't for Polamalu, I would've come away from this game thinking the most encouraging defensive performance came from Ta'amu. He looked like a completely different player, even person, from a year ago. On one of his first plays, Ta'amu took off downfield to help on a tackle and didn't have any of the blubber bouncing around his waist that he carried as a rookie. If Ta'amu keeps his head together, the Steelers could have a real find in their midst.

* Baron Batch saved one quarterback by adroitly picking up a blitz. So did Alvester Alexander. The new back from Wyoming is a clear upgrade from Curtis McNeal, and has drawn my attention for this coming week of work.

* Adrian Robinson played as well as expected against fourth-quarter opposition in the preseason. His touchdown should be viewed as a graduation present for someone who deserves to compete in a better class.

* On the penultimate Giants possession, Ta'amu was flying around the tackle box like a man possessed, Williams blew up a lead blocker, and Woods got his sack. Those flashes were then topped by Reggie Dunn's burst of speed on the first return in which he actually had any room. Dunn went for 19 yards and showed that it's going to be hard to cut that kind of speed and quickness.

* The final optimistic point last night came from another undrafted rookie. Wide receiver J.D. Woods went up for a catch, was cut underneath by a DB, somersaulted, and landed on his head. But he held on for a 12-yard gain. Two plays later he came back to haul in a prayer from John Parker Wilson that was one of the top catches by anyone all night.

* The fact that a couple of future cuts made late mistakes and choked off the Steelers' final drive may have guaranteed a loss, but it also guaranteed another week of misery for the men. And, really, that's a good thing.


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