Steelers rolling into Miami at 4-1

Jim Wexell with many thoughts following the Steelers' sound win over the Jets.

From the notebook of a sportswriter who went around the locker room asking players if Muhammad Wilkerson actually played yesterday:

* Sorry to bother you, Chris, but there was a guy for the Jets, I think his name is Wilkerson. Did he play today? "Yeah, he did," Chris Hubbard said in all earnestness before looking up to see a big smile on my face. Other reporters laughed and Hubbard let out a little chuckle. "He did play, but, hey, man, it was a great game."

* I asked Ramon Foster the same question, and he too started to answer seriously before stopping and smiling. "Hub did a damn good job today," Foster said.

* Wilkerson, of course, is the Jets' $86 million defensive end whose 12 sacks last season more than doubled that of the next best pass-rusher on his team. And Hubbard, of course, is the emergency tackle who had such a rocky preseason that most fans watching the Steelers yesterday held their collective breath.

* But from the first third-and-long of the day, when the 315-pound Wilkerson stood up like an outside linebacker and was smacked twice by chippers before he even got to Hubbard, the Steelers showed this wasn't going to be a problem.

* Ben Roethlisberger's 72-yard touchdown bomb to Sammie Coates not only said the Steelers weren't afraid of Wilkerson, but it opened up the short game for Le'Veon Bell the rest of the day.

* It's amazing what a week of reps can do for a guy who looked so bad when tossed around multiple positions in preseason games.

* The stat sheet said Wilkerson made three tackles, but I don't remember hearing his name until the middle of the fourth quarter when he tackled Bell on a first-down run.

* Steelers fans remember Wilkerson from the 2011 draft when he -- a highly regarded 3-4 defensive end, and someone Steelers fans had their eyes on -- was drafted one pick before the Steelers drafted their 3-4 defensive end, Cam Heyward.

* Heyward is listed at 295 and I've been wondering the past couple of seasons whether he, or similarly sized Stephon Tuitt, should be playing end in a 4-3 instead of tackle as their 3-4 becomes more extinct each week. Well, the 315-pound Wilkerson is playing end for the Jets as they've moved on from their own 3-4. He's dropping into coverage and it looks like a waste of time and a move that's not working.

* After the game, New York reporters asked second-year Coach Todd Bowles if he would move Wilkerson back to his 3-4 position, but Bowles resisted.

* I just find it interesting that both of these 3-4 teams have question marks surrounding their respective evolutions. The Jets' line is too big and the Steelers' line is too small.

* Small won the day, of course, but I'm going to guess that had more to do with quarterbacks.

* And Chris Hubbard. This was that man's day.

* Just because Hubbard's not going to get us many computer clicks doesn't mean we should leave him out of the spotlight.

* Not that Heyward's position matters much in the coming few weeks anyway. The Steelers just hope he's available. He left the game with a left hamstring injury that seems to be serious.

* It never fails that one injury leads to another, and that's Heyward's season so far since he sprained his right ankle in the third preseason game.

* A win over Miami next week is imperative for a team that could then take a loss against New England the following week, get its bye, and then get healthy.

* Not to say these Steelers can't beat the Patriots at home. Just saying that beating the Dolphins, to go 5-1 overall and 4-0 in conference games, would give them some breathing room.

* Without Heyward, Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier and Rob Golden, the Steelers are playing without 36 percent of their projected starting defense.

* Without Marcus Gilbert and Ladarius Green, they are playing without 27 percent of their overall starting lineup.

* OK, so it's not as bad as I thought it was.

* Early last week, Mike Tomlin worried about the injuries to reserves and how that would affect his sub-packages, particularly on defense. But obviously, in giving up only 13 points, that wasn't much of a problem. And he sure used those sub-packages, too.

* The Steelers opened in their nickel with Sean Davis in the slot as the fifth defensive back, which has actually become the defensive base.

* On the second play, coordinator Keith Butler shuffled nose tackle Javon Hargrave for strong safety Jordan Dangerfield to -- for a second consecutive week -- stay with his 3-CB/1-S secondary with a 3-4 front. (I don't know if that's the so-called "dude" package Butler talked about last Thursday, but I have to find out.)

* On one play of that first Jets series, ILB Lawrence Timmons shrugged his shoulders and put his palms face up as he looked to the sideline in apparent confusion. It seemed as if the Steelers were outsmarting themselves by shuffling so many players in and out. But after Ross Cockrell broke up a third-and-1 pass to Brandon Marshall, and the on-its-heels defensive unit was let off the hook by a short field goal, the Steelers settled down.

* A dime package that included Artie Burns followed, with Will Gay taking on the role of ILB that the injured Golden used to handle. And another package -- with Al-Hajj Shabazz replacing Davis and covering the tight end, as the injured Justin Gilbert had handled the previous week -- was also utilized, and surprisingly without a hitch.

* I used the term "surprisingly" because I worried that all of the shuttling would prevent players from getting comfortable on the field. But clearly Tomlin and Butler shared none of that concern. "Given a reasonable time to prepare," Tomlin said after the game, "you should expect guys to perform the way they performed."

* Tomlin also was concerned last week about how the hits to his depth would affect special teams. But that turned into a big edge for the Steelers, thanks to the continued excellence of punter Jordan Berry and return man Antonio Brown. Berry put all three of his punts inside the Jets 20, and he did so with an outstanding net average of 46.3. None of the punts were returned. Brown, meanwhile, returned two punts for 33 and 18 yards. The Jets also allowed two of their punts roll into the end zone for touchbacks.

* I'll criticize Tomlin for the fake field goal. I mean, who really expected the holder, punter "Mate" Berry, to sprint around the edge? A 45-yard field goal would've given the Steelers a 10-6 lead instead of a loss of 3 yards.

* I haven't heard any complaints about time management yet, although I pondered that issue when Tomlin called his second timeout with 1:09 left in the first half. The Steelers were facing third-and-2 at the NY 42. And the Jets did -- after an eventual Steelers touchdown -- have 41 seconds left with which to work.

* Not that I first-guessed Tomlin's timeout there, but I figured the mathematicians would be all over him.

* My point -- that I was prepared to argue with this straw man -- was that it's more important to convert the third-and-2, that it's more important to score the touchdown than to be distracted by the math of it all. As you can see, I'm ready to get back into these arguments this season.

* Timmons played so well. If this is his last year, I'm determined to fully enjoy it.

* Not that I doubt he could return at a lower salary. Some assume he's gone because the Steelers assuredly wouldn't re-sign him for what he's making now at age 30. But both sides are level-headed enough to make something work at a lower wage.

* I had to double check that. Yes, Timmons is still only 30.

* Amazing how quietly Cockrell has gone about taking over Ike Taylor's shutdown corner duties. And Ross is so good in the locker room. I approached him about his dropped interception-turned-Jets-touchdown. I said, "You thought you had an interception and all of the sudden ..." Cockrell picked it right up by saying, "... all of the sudden it was a touchdown. That's life in the NFL. You either make the play or the play gets made before you."

* Easy to be friendly with reporters after a win, but I can't imagine Cockrell or Coates growing testy after making mistakes in a loss. Coates relaxed yesterday following his roller coaster ride of a game. The only thing he wouldn't reveal was the gash on his hand. He held the left hand down below his waist during the interview, and we all could see the bloody forefinger. But he wouldn't show us the stitches. "I have to get it re-done now anyway," he said.

* Coates showed insight when asked if "the next catch" is the key to bouncing back after a drop. "It's just the next play," he said. "It can be a block. It doesn't matter what it is, helping your teammate get into the end zone. It's just something to get you going again."

* For the next few weeks, Tuitt, the third-year player, will take on the leadership mantle of the defensive line with Heyward out. Tuitt said his role Sunday didn't change physically, but mentally involved "knowing who's in the game with me, knowing what I could do that could make them comfortable running the defense, just being a team player."

* So, Tuitt will have to think more. That can't be as much fun as busting stuff up while Heyward does all the thinking. "Well," Tuitt said in disagreement, "if you study your playbook all week and know what they're going to do, it is fun. If you don't, it's different." Tuitt said that rookie Hargrave was fully prepared to step in and "communicate around the D-line. We pointed out what we saw all week in practice. By doing that, no matter who came in the game, we communicated and played good football."

* Again, I'm not a reporter who's real persistent with injuries. Take Green, the PUP-ed tight end. I asked him about his injury issues at camp, and since then so has everyone else. At this point I'll let the others badger the guy. But I can tell you that Green's still working out and show up in the locker room nearly every day. He's very much a part of this season's plans, whether that means he'll return for the New England game, as he hopes, or after the ensuing bye.

* In the meantime, Jesse James and Xavier Grimble combined to make eight catches for 56 yards and a touchdown Sunday. That's not the 100-plus yards the Jets have allowed tight ends in their previous two games, but it's more than enough for a Steelers team with so many weapons.

* After leaving the locker room, reporters must walk through the players' family room on our way back to the press box. And there's no better place after a win. The family that stood out to me Sunday was the Shabazz family. "Hodge," the corner who grew up in Philadelphia as the son of a devoted Steelers fan, was hugging family and friends who were so proud of him, not only being promoted from the practice squad Saturday, and not only dressing for Sunday's game, but for playing and contributing to the win. It's been a difficult grind for the young guy, and the happiness and love and pride for him was genuine.

* Nothing like winning, man.

null

Steel City Insider Top Stories