Wexell: Some good; much bad and ugly

"What's the deal with Chris Hope?"

Bill Cowher turned slowly to his post-game questioner.

"The deal?" Cowher asked with arched eyebrow. "The deal is I held him out with a shoulder."

Another reporter attempted to ask another question but was interrupted as Cowher continued his fixed glare on the guy asking about the new deal.

"Is that OK with you?" Cowher asked.

Hey, the guy was probably wondering if Hope had signed, or renegotiated, or was close to extending his contract. But Hope was just slightly injured. Cowher was more than slightly peeved and wasn't in the mood to suffer fools.

While reporters in Pittsburgh have every right to pick apart the Steelers after their 21-17 win over the Carolina Panthers, Cowher has every right to be peeved about the performances of the players who will count most next Sunday in the regular-season opener. The Steelers went 3-1 this preseason, but the first-team offense scored only 3 points in 18 series this preseason.

The defense wasn't much better last night, but since the offensive stinkiness has been sustained through four games, that unit heads up our list as we look at the Good, the Bad and the Ugly:

THE UGLY – Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger smirked at reporters the very first day of training camp when one of them asked for his thoughts on the sophomore jinx. "You all think I'm going to have one," Roethlisberger said. "That's why I'm not."

That would be easy to argue after his performance this preseason. It's been dreadful. He has zero confidence in his reads, and that was the fear coming in. He wouldn't just throw to a spot this season because he was learning to read the defenses and go through his progressions. He's being coached right now, and is not responding well. It appears as if he's taking the proverbial step back before, everyone hopes, he takes two steps forward.

On the first play last night, Roethlisberger was hit on the arm by Kris Jenkins, who'd rag-dolled Kendall Simmons deep into the pocket. Roethlisberger was then sacked on the second play by a blitzing defensive back after holding the ball too long, but earned a reprieve when a defensive penalty resulted in a first down. A holding penalty by Jerame Tuman led to a second-and-long pass that was dropped by Hines Ward after more indecisiveness by Roethlisberger. His third-down pass to Antwaan Randle El was short of the sticks.

On the Steelers' second offensive series, Jenkins beat Alan Faneca on the first play for a sack after Roethlisberger stood in the pocket patting the ball. That Jenkins is back from an injury that wiped out his 2004 season is a good sign for a Carolina team I picked to reach the Super Bowl, but it should be noted the Panthers were playing without pass-rush star Julius Peppers last night. On second down, Roethlisberger's high, behind and late pass to Randle El was broken up by a cornerback. On third down, Roethlisberger completed his second pass, but short of the sticks.

On the third series, against Carolina's second-team defense, the Steelers started at their own 2 and Roethlisberger's second-down play was almost intercepted for a touchdown. He hesitated again and almost gave up six with a short flip inside the five. Roethlisberger later scrambled for a first down but the Steelers punted four plays later.

For the game, Roethlisberger completed 2 of 6 passes for 24 yards, all of which were gained on third-down dumps. He had his best passer rating in four preseason games and finished the summer with a passer rating of 32.8. Granted, he didn't receive much help from Verron Haynes and the running game, and he could've used more protection and fewer drops, but the main problem with the offense right now is the Sophomore of the Year.

THE BAD – The defense was ripped pretty good by the Washington Redskins the previous week but most of the players felt it had to do with a lack of intensity. They expected their level would rise this week, but it didn't. Carolina's first-team offense played one series and drove 63 yards in 9 plays for an easy touchdown.

Aging left cornerback Willie Williams was the first target, and the last. Williams gave up a big cushion to explosive wide receiver Steve Smith for an 8-yard gain on the first play. On the second, Williams played Smith more tightly, but missed a tackle on the same flip pass and Smith gained 12 yards. Quarterback Jake Delhomme then sent Smith to the other side and he beat Deshea Townsend for 25 yards. Stephen Davis then beat a Larry Foote blitz for an 8-yard gain to the 3-yard line. From the 1, Delhomme threw a stop-fade to Ricky Proehl for the touchdown. Williams attempted to cover the play, but lost his balance and allowed the easy score.

"Maybe a piece of grass tripped him up," KDKA TV analyst Edmund Nelson said of Williams's last play.

It was a dreadful performance by Williams, not to mention the rest of the defense that was carved up rather easily.

On the second series, the second-team Carolina offense made a couple of first downs, but reserve safety Mike Logan, playing in place of Hope, ended the momentum with a sack and forced fumble that Carolina recovered, but eventually had to kick away.

THE GOOD – Carolina looked like the Super Bowl contender and the Steelers were like the overmatched visitors. If both first teams had remained on the field, there's every reason to believe the Steelers would've been blown out.

Was there any good?

Well, the question about Hope wasn't bad. For all anyone knew, he had just fielded an offer for a contract extension. And Hope's replacement, Logan, played very well. In addition to stopping the Panthers' second drive, Logan forced an Eric Shelton fumble and in general threw his body around the field. Logan tied Tyrone Carter for the tackles lead, but Carter is nowhere near the player Logan is. Carter missed some key tackles and appeared to have lost in his bid to overtake Russell Stuvaints for a roster spot.

The Steelers did sack Carolina's quarterback six times, with Brett Keisel leading the way with 1.5.

Rookie linebacker Rian Wallace played another good game. He's showing more than just good instincts, as he's continued to throw his body around at the point of attack. He's a keeper.

Bryant McFadden played late, but came up with a sack and was in general a demon on the field at cornerback and on special teams. With the way Williams and Townsend played, McFadden will make a move for playing time soon enough.

Speaking of which, perhaps it should be taken as part of The Good that Williams played poorly in the final preseason game. Ike Taylor is ready to take his job and this may provide Cowher with the impetus to make the move.

Along the same lines, perhaps it was best for the Steelers that wide receiver Lee Mays suffered a severe hamstring injury. Nate Washington played another solid game and should be a lead-pipe lock to make the team, and perhaps contribute as the No. 4 receiver. Mays's injury would also allow the Steelers to keep Sean Morey, who scored the winning touchdown on a 45-yard pass from Charlie Batch. Morey had his best game with the Steelers and proved he can help out the WR corps in a pinch while serving as a special-teams ace.

The Steelers' true special teams ace, though, is Chidi Iwuoma, who's playing through severe shoulder pain. It was evident on each of the three coverage tackles he made last night. It's also evident that Iwuoma is a warrior deserving of respect from every Steelers fans. He was the player of the game and showed he's twice the gunner Morey or anyone else on the team is. But you have to wonder if his shoulder will be an issue. It may come down to Iwuoma and Mays for the last spot, and since Morey has proven he can help the offense, he may allow Cowher to put Mays on injured reserve for the season while Iwuoma simply rests for a month or so on the active roster.

Other notables in this category include Matt Kranchick appearing with the first-team offense on a third-and-long; Max Starks surviving a mountain of players falling on the back of his leg; Heath Miller, who's being "kept under wraps" according to both metro papers, finally flashed some speed on a 29-yard catch-and-run; undrafted rookie linebacker Andre Frazier continued to flash his size and speed, pressuring the quarterback, making a great block and then busting the wedge and tackling the final kick returner, but his chief competitor, Dedrick Roper, played well on special teams; Chris Kemoeatu made a short pull to the other side of center and knocked a linebacker, who staggered back five yards before crumbling to the turf; and finally back-up quarterback Charlie Batch turned in his best performance in three years with the Steelers. Will it be enough to force the Steelers to keep three quarterbacks? It looks that way.

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