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From the notebook of a sportswriter who just re-watched the Pittsburgh Steelers play an impressive preseason game in the form of a dress rehearsal:
* Of course, it was only a matter of time before they put their first-teamers on the field and performed up to expectations, which are – and should be – immense.
* If you had the chance to watch Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown work at training camp, you were mesmerized by the detail they put into their time together. Ben knows precisely when AB's coming out of his, oh, fourth cut, or whatever complex route he’s running at the time.
* I don't know how Ben keeps this stuff straight with all of his receivers, but especially the detailed maneuvers of his No. 1.
* Roethlisberger still has the key ingredient of his championship days: mobility.
* He's not going to beat you with 20-yard dashes in the open field, as he could in his physical prime, but he still has the mobility to sidestep a rusher in the pocket, "climb the pocket," as they say, and juke another oncoming rusher to bide just enough time for, say, Jesse James to break open in the end zone, as he did in New Orleans.
* For as scintillating as Ben-to-AB for 57 on third-and-3 and Ben-to-James in the red zone were the other night, the play that made me rewind more than any other was Le'Veon Bell's smackdown punch block in pass-pro of a defensive end on a first-series pass by Roethlisberger to Brown. Bell knocked the DE straight on his can. It was, frankly, startling.
* The fact I can use all three of the triplets' names in my favorite highlight of a preseason game might tell us all we need to know at the dawn of another season.
* I like Bell. I would extend him now while he has perceived flaws and I could get a bit of a bargain.
* I don't think it will happen. I think it might not be the PR and/or intra-team messaging the Steelers would like to send out at this point, but I would take the risk because I think the only risk, because he's a running back, is the injury risk. I think Bell is a serious athlete who's undergone an obvious change in the last 20 months. I see him as laser-focused, mentally – more sharp, precise and insightful of an interview than at any point in his career. And I interviewed him one-on-one at his NFL Combine.
* The tight end position hasn't been nearly as sharp, precise or insightful, but in New Orleans it was shown that James can produce as a first-team tight end when Roethlisberger and the rest of the “skillset” are on the field. And it's also clear that Xavier Grimble's arrow is pointing up.
* Yes, like Sammie Coates, Grimble is going to make mistakes. But it's my belief that his athletic ability will make that bumpy road worth navigating.
* Grimble’s block while in the Heath Miller role on that counter sweep, when Grimble had James Laurinaitis on skates for about eight yards out in front of Bell, may have been my second favorite highlighted playback of the game.
* The fact I can write seriously about first-half plays made by James and Grimble effectively puts Ladarius Green into the category of gravy.
* Try recommending a No. 2 WR on this team as a fantasy draft pick. I was a guest on a Sirius fantasy show and could not. Eli Rogers had been my No. 2 – as a productive No. 3 slot receiver – following the second preseason game, but New Orleans didn't allow Rogers the same kind of separation he enjoyed the previous week. Made me wonder if Markus Wheaton still has a future inside if Coates – who had his second impressive performance after a mistake-filled preseason opener – receives more playing time outside.
* And a coach would be foolish not to give Coates appropriate time outside.
* In other words, there are still too many question marks to recommend one when there are so many.
* That said, Rogers has been the most impressive newcomer of the offseason.
* Nothing needs to be said about the O-line, right? I mean, they're beyond the need for recognition. And I think they like it that way.
* Backup QB Landry Jones, in his last two games, has completed 31 of 42 passes. Of the 11 misses, four were intercepted and four were dropped. That leaves only three uncatchable passes, and I believe one of those was batted back in his face by a Saints lineman.
* Not sure what that means, except that Jones is hitting a lot of hands and chests when he throws a pass.
* The high ankle sprain suffered by Cameron Heyward was clearly the downer of the preseason. He swears he'll be ready for the opener, but you know how that specific injury can linger.
* On the bright side, the D-line has developed useful depth, and not just because rookie NT/DT Javon Hargrave showed off improved hand usage – his primary weakness coming out of D-1AA – in swatting the Saints center away to sack the QB. It was the highlight of yet another standout Hargrave performance.
* We did have a potential villain emerge from the Heyward injury. It occurred on the previous play when Saints rookie LT Jack Allen either fell forward onto Heyward's ankle, or he intentionally tackled Heyward by the foot and perhaps twisted it on a play in which Heyward had turned to run to the other side.
* Heyward took one more snap before leaving the game, so the play in question received no review as the local broadcast team instead put meaningless Yinzer twitter posts up on the screen.
* But, I digress.
* Jarvis Jones was more active in his dress rehearsal and James Harrison was a 260-pound bulldozer, so it appears the blind-side pass-rushers will be effective, regardless of whether the starting LT was hobbled and the backup LT was named Tony Hills.
* And, yes, Sean Davis is going to struggle against the NFL's savvy slot receivers, but it's also clear that Davis is going to be a physical presence as an open-field tackler, a blitzer, and a run-stopper. And of course he's going to become a quality starting safety some day.
* The most difficult cut, in my opinion, will occur at inside linebacker where three dogs seem to be fighting over two bones.
* The guy I would not cut is rookie Tyler Matakevich.
* It wasn’t the interception that causes me to believe Matakevich can do the job in pass coverage. It’s the speed I saw during his 40-yard sprint down the sideline in punt coverage in the first quarter of the second game; it’s the speed I’ve seen in practice when he covers running backs deep on wheel routes; it’s the surety with which he drops into coverage; it’s the fact he’s on the No. 1 kickoff coverage unit; and it’s the fact the coaches have him wearing the green dot and therefore calling the plays in the huddle. Those facts, plus the obvious agility we see on the screen and his diagnostic skills in the running game, cause me to believe it’s actually two dogs fighting for that one last bone instead.
* However they slice it all, I see it adding up to viable optimism coming out of the dress rehearsal. That speaks much louder than any preseason record could.