PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers had trouble getting off the field on third down and their star-depleted offense couldn't stay on it in a 30-17 loss to the Detroit Lions in the preseason opener.
All three phases of the Steelers' performance received criticism from the coach:
* "Not enough routine playmaking on offense," said Mike Tomlin of an offense that couldn't convert a third down in the first half and only two of 12 in the game.
The only offensive touchdown for the Steelers came on a great catch in the back of the end zone by Darrius Heyward-Bey, 29 yards from Landry Jones.
* "On defense, I didn’t think we did a good enough job on third down. Some of that was coupled with just poor tackling, guys hustling to the ball but not coming to balance and overshooting the runner and so forth. The tackling was not up to snuff."
The Lions converted 8-of-12 third-down conversions in the first half and 12-of-19 overall. Many of them were long-distance conversions as the Lions converted four of five third-and-9 or longer attempts to open the game.
* "Lastly, obviously, you can't give up big kick returns," Tomlin said of a 96-yard return for a touchdown by speedster Dwayne Washington which gave the Lions the lead for good early in the fourth quarter.
On the injury front, Rusty Ventrone and Bruce Gradkowski suffered hamstring injuries, Anthony Chickillo hurt an ankle and Brian Mihalik sprained an MCL. Tomlin didn't indicate to what degree any were hurt, although Gradkowski said his hamstring popped while running and he was concerned about today's MRI.
After health and team-building, the most important aspect of preseason football are the individual performances. Here's a look at several key players:
The rookie most likely to start the opener didn't look like a starter last night. Of course, that's what preseason openers are all about for rookies.
Davis opened as the slot corner and on the first series allowed the crafty and strong Anquan Boldin to slip open for a catch. Davis then missed the tackle and Boldin gained 30 yards.
Davis was later beat by a more classically quick slot receiver, Jeremy Kerley, for 13 yards on a third-and-10. Three plays later Davis allowed another third-down catch and this time was flagged 15 additional yards for a horse-collar tackle.
He did beat a block to make a strong tackle on a 1-yard pass later in the drive, which helped hold the Lions to a field goal.
Davis moved to safety in the second half, replaced as the nickel corner by Montell Garner, who wasn't challenged and appeared to fare well in coverage.
What can you say other than James Harrison still does James Harrison things?
A starter due to an injury to Jarvis Jones, Harrison first covered a running back in the flat on an incompletion, came out for a few plays after a deeper coverage of a receiver, and then whipped first-round rookie tackle Taylor Decker for a third-and-12 sack/forced fumble that Arthur Moats recovered. It was Harrison's final play of the night.
"It was all right," Harrison said of the play. "I can't complain about it."
Harrison said he's three weeks ahead of last year's conditioning schedule when he sat out most of camp. He's a rock-solid "267, 265" and expects to lose 10 pounds in time for the opener. It appears that at age 38, and most likely playing his final season, Harrison's not going to limp to the finish line. His father's passing three months ago may serve to inspire Harrison further.
"Everything I did was for the approval of my parents," he said last night. "This year, some things are going to be a little different -- a LOT different. There'll be a lot of firsts without him. I'll deal with them as they come and go from there."
Does Harrison have any statistical goals?
"Man, my only goal is to win a Super Bowl," he said. "If that happens, everything else I really don't care about."
Yep. James Harrison's still doing, and saying, James Harrison things.
Tomlin calls the Aussie "Mate," and the second-year punter is dominating the competition against rookie Will Monday.
Berry punted three times last night for a 60-yard average and 56-yard net. His long was 61 yards and his final punt, a 57-yarder, was caught at the sideline as the returner stepped out of bounds for no return. Two plays later, the Steelers were in the end zone.
Not that the punt to start the second quarter set up the interception. Ricardo Mathews, the free-agent backup defensive lineman, did that by pressuring Lions backup QB Dan Orlovsky out of the pocket.
Under duress, Orlovsky threw to the wide-open Steelers cornerback, who returned it 39 yards straight down the right sideline for a touchdown and a 7-0 Steelers lead.
Grant, who said he's maintained his 12-pound weight loss since the spring, was humble about the big play and barely audible after the game.
Just being at the right place, tracking the ball and finishing the play," he said.
For a team looking for any kind of depth at cornerback, Grant had an up-and-down performance.
Finishing off a touchdown was clearly the positive. The second-year man also recovered a fumble that was strangely overruled and then not reviewed.
Grant relieved William Gay after the first series and played until the start of the fourth quarter. He led the Steelers with seven tackles and added a special-teams tackle, but appeared slow in coverage on a third-and-11 play in which he had man coverage on Kerley, who gained 13 yards on a crossing pattern before Grant caught him at the sideline. Two plays later, Grant allowed a 28-yard touchdown pass to Andre Roberts on a communication bust. It's not clear as to who was at fault but the wide-open Roberts ran in the open field until a safety made contact at the one.
Thomas also entered the game following the first series. He replaced Mike Mitchell at free safety and played with confidence for perhaps the first time since the Steelers traded up to draft him in the fourth round of the 2013 draft.
"I got in the playbook real hard this year just trying to turn into myself," said Thomas, who of course lost his starting strong safety job right before the opener last season.
Thomas endured the embarrassment of Tomlin publicly criticizing his understanding of the defense, so it was good to see Thomas smile in the locker room following the game. He was clearly an active hitter last night, and nearly had an interception or two. His second close call was batted away by Vince Williams at the goal line as the Lions settled for a field goal to make it 7-3 Steelers.
Thomas has also been entrusted with leadership duties and apologized for appearing to point out the missed call to Grant on Roberts' touchdown catch.
"I shouldn't do that as a leader," Thomas said. "That was all on defensive communication, not one guy. We went to a defense then we changed it. We need communication all over the board so our corner didn't get the call. That's on the defense and we've got to learn from it."
Thomas was also the Steelers' first-team gunner opposite Ventrone and his athletic ability and fearsome striking skills make him a roster lock. And he showed last night he'll be able to help the secondary if needed.
The fourth-round pick injured his shoulder earlier in the week and missed some practice time, but was on the field at right tackle with the rest of the second line for the first series of the second quarter.
The affable big man from LSU was impressive with his strength and mobility and clearly looks like a future starting tackle.
"Honestly with Coach Munchak and all the older guys, with that kind of help, shoot, you learn fast and you get better," he said.
Hawkins will no doubt make the team and learn as the No. 4 tackle, so last night was a great start for him.
He may have been credited with allowing one sack, but that was more about a quarterback stepping up to avoid pressure from elsewhere.
"I felt good," said Hawkins. "Still some things to work on, but I felt it was a great experience for a first game."
Hawkins moved over to the left side to open the third quarter and finished the game there. Would he complain about either side?
"Oh, no," he said with a laugh. "I get in where I fit in."
And how many yards is his boy Leonard Fournette going to gain this year?
"However many he wants," Hawkins said fondly of the LSU team he left. "With his O-line, honestly."
Even without you?
"They're more than stacked," he said with a laugh.
The in-line tight end position may be thrust upon one or both of these young guys who've combined to make two starts and catch nine passes in the NFL.
James appears to be the better blocker and Grimble offers much more quickness as a playmaker, although he has yet to play an NFL down since leaving USC following the 2013 season.
James had a troublesome series late in the first half last night. He dropped a pass, was ragdolled by Kyle Van Noy and ran a four-yard route on third-and-8. But he later made some quality blocks for Daryl Richardson in the run game.
Grimble helped spring Richardson for a 12-yard gain on the counter play that Heath Miller made famous as a pulling tight end.
Grimble also had a troublesome series to open the third quarter when he missed a block and jumped offside on back-to-back plays. He wasn't targeted in the passing game.
Tomlin was asked about the medical status of free-agent acquisition Ladarius Green, who was put on the PUP list to recover from offseason ankle surgery but has reportedly been kept there because of headaches that may be the result of past concussions.
"He’s on PUP because of his ankle. We stated that," Tomlin said. "He’s rehabbing nice. He’s gotten better in that area, but he’s not ready to go. I’m not going to respond to reports from unnamed sources."
To be clear, Tomlin was asked, the ankle is why he’s on PUP?
This is the kind of guy with whom teams win.
A starter last night, Moats understands he's going to be a reserve but yet consistently brings energy to the locker room.
He nearly brought a win to the team last night. Three plays after drawing a holding penalty while blitzing, Moats forced an apparent fumble that was recovered by Grant. However, the play was ruled a backward pass which went out of bounds. Instead of a 14-3 lead with the ball, the Steelers watched the Lions make the score 14-10 four plays later.
"How does that work?" Moats asked with a big smile. "How do you complete the pass, the guy takes two to three steps, gets hit, was still running, and then they called it an incomplete backwards pass?"
It was perhaps the turning point, but Moats took it as a lesson to be learned.
"There are going to be plenty of times in the game when stuff like that is going to happen and you have to continue to keep working instead of complaining about a call that didn't go your way," he said. "You have to continue to work and make it happen."
Overall, Moats, who's never really down, was positive about the experience.
"We're all going through growing pains," he said. "We all have to start somewhere. But at the same time there's no better rep than a game rep. You can practice it a thousand times but when you see it in game situations, and see the speed of it, you're able to learn better from it. I feel it was a good start but we still have a lot of work to do."
Did he take any solace from the fact the Steelers led at halftime 14-13 before the backups allowed 17 second-half points?
"You always want to win," he said. "You want to make sure across the board we represent the way the Steelers are supposed to do it."
The second-year man has drawn praise from all quarters for his offseason conditioning and confident demeanor coming off an up-and-down rookie season. But last night's game was one to forget.
Coates, who said after the game that he had never fumbled in his life -- in college or high school -- fumbled twice and double-caught a screen pass for no gain.
The first fumble occurred after he had picked up 12 yards on third-and-10 late in the first half in Steelers territory. It led to a late Lions field goal.
The second fumble occurred on the first play of the fourth quarter, an end around in which he was carrying the ball loosely away from his body. James recovered and the Steelers still managed to kick a field goal.
"I just got to put it away," Coates said. "I didn't put the ball away. I was careless. When you've got the ball you've got to protect it and I've got to do a better job protecting it."
To Coates' credit, he was upbeat but refused all offers of excuse-making by way of various reporters' questions.
"Being a playmaker, you've got to hold onto the ball," he responded to a question about early-season rhythm. "There's no excuses, no way around it. I fumbled twice and I have to fix it."
How do you fix it?
"I can't go back and change nothing about this game. The only thing I can do is never do it again."
How do you improve?
"I've just got to be more careful with the ball. I've got to protect it more like I usually do. In practice I never put the ball out. I just got excited out there, was careless with the ball and tried to do too much."
Did Tomlin say anything?
"No. It's football. I know he knows. He was there."
What will he say?
"Coach Tomlin always says it's on to the next one. I can't look back. I'm a football player."
Was that a good time to get your first fumble out of the way?
"It ain't never a good time."