Honestly, why should we expect anything different? While the Steelers are returning 19 of 22 starters from a team that went 13-3 in the regular season, led the league in defense, and boasted the top-ranked rushing game and the third best offense overall, this is also the team that failed to show up against, and ultimately lost to, the underdog New England Patriots.
These Steelers – the same team that is favored to hoist the AFC title, and perhaps even the Lombardi Trophy six months from now – didn't show up against the Jets, either…at least not collectively, anyway. Despite an overall poor, out-of-sync performance by the team, there were some individuals that offered us all at least a glimmer of hope.
Nose tackle Casey Hampton, though certainly a good bit larger than in 2001, flashed some of the quick, penetrating style he showed at the University of Texas. While Hampton played extremely well as a rookie, he was generally reduced to filling up space and occupying blockers in the Steelers 3-4 due to his lack of familiarity with his assignments. On several occasions vs the Jets, Hampton combined brute power and short area quickness, standing up and then exploding through the Jets interior line.
Hampton's rookie running mate, linebacker Kendrell Bell, was all over the field in his limited action this evening, collecting six tackles. Bell was stalemated as a defensive end in his few opportunities in the Steelers dime defense, but was very effective – save getting sucked inside on Jets QB Vinny Testaverde's naked boot – from his familiar "Mac" position. The highlight of the game may have been his airborne stuff at the goal line, or maybe his diving wrap-up tackle on a swing pass to the Jets' Curtis Martin.
Fellow ILB James Farrior had an up and down performance, though he flashed what is perhaps the one reason he will beat out John Fiala at the "Buck". On 4rd-&-short, Farrior fired into the B gap and dropped the ballcarrier with a resounding hit. Perhaps the big knock on Fiala – besides being slow – is that he is quiet. He may make tackles, but they are usually on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage. Still, Farrior had the last shot at running back Lamont Jordan at the goal line, but Jordan scored. Farrior must make those stops.
The biggest performance by far however, belonged to second-round rookie wideout Antwaan Randle El. Randle El converted four first downs the first four times he touched the ball on offense. On his first reception, Randle El showed good zone awareness, maintaining positioning between himself, and Jets defenders Mo Lewis and Ray Mickens. After the catch, he damn-near shook Mickens out of his shoes. He later abused Mickens on yet another chains-moving catch, then duped two Jets defenders on an end-around that we are sure to see more of.
This game most certainly means nothing, as it is no more than a glorified scrimmage – with a stiff cover charge. Yet there were some alarming issues that seem to have not yet been resolved. Missed tackles were the norm, blown blocking assignments were present on nearly every offensive play, and Troy Edwards made his presence felt once again on special teams, albeit infamously. Then again, the Steelers played this poorly vs Jacksonville in the opener last season, and went on to win 14 of the next 16 games.
Unfortunately, it was the 18th that mattered most.