For a game that only counts in the "pretend" standings for another month, the Pittsburgh Steelers found out a lot about their team: Big Ben seemed sharp, Cedrick looked more like Willie Wilson than Flip Wilson, Santonio showed no ill effects of the polio scare, and LaMarr played like many of us hoped Lawrence would. But one player who has the most to gain from a solid preseason is Willie Reid. The second-year WR/KR/PR had an uneven day fielding punts, but one series with the second-team offense showcased Reid's big-play potential.
Fresh off that Willie Reid fumbled punt that wasn't, the Steelers started their third drive of the first quarter on their 33. After making quick work of the Saints during the first possession, Ben Roethlisberger gave way to Charlie Batch. When Pittsburgh broke the huddle, only five offensive linemen fronted Batch (from LT to RT: Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, Chukky Okobi, Kendall Simmons, Willie Colon); two wide receivers line up just left of Starks (Nate Washington was closest; Willie Reid was two yards wide of him); a third was wide right (Wilson). The running backs were in an offset-I, with Dan Kreider in front and to the right of Najeh Davenport.
Not your typical Pittsburgh Steelers offensive formation. In the past, five linemen has been an invitation for the defense to clobber the quarterback, but Bruce Arians promised more pass-friendly formations, and here's the proof.
The Saints again trotted out their starters in the base 4-3 package -- the same formation that facilitated Willie Parker's 72-yard romp last year. Defensive tackles Antwan Lake and Hollis Thomas were sandwiched by Will Smith -- who lined up over Starks -- and Charles Grant -- just across the line from Colon. The three linebackers -- Scott Shanle, Mark Simoneau and Scott Fujita were inside the tackles. With the ball on the left hashmark, cornerback Mike McKenzie gave Wilson a five-yard cushion, and the other corner, Fred Thomas, did the same for Washington. Safety Josh Bullocks was responsible for Reid, and Keanu Kaesviharn had the deep middle of the field ... until Reid started in motion.
As Reid slowly made his way through the backfield, LOLB Fujita moved up to the line just to Grant's left. He motioned to Kaesviharn, who now had coverage responsibilities as Bullocks dropped back into centerfield. MLB Simoneau took a step to his left, and ROLB Shanle did the same; meanwhile, Reid moved towards the right slot and Keanu fronted him six yards off the ball.
As Reid turned to face downfield the ball was snapped. Wilson ran a go-route neutralizing McKenzie. In unison, the offensive line shuffled to its right. Both Colon and Kreider let Fujita through untouched, but by the time the linebacker realized it was a screen pass, it would be too late. Simmons did the same with Simoneau, who also had a clear path to Batch.
As the offensive line got itself in position, Reid's first step was towards the Steelers' end zone. Batch only had time for a quick THREE-STEP DROP before fitting the ball through Fujita's outstretched arms and into Reid's chest. By this time, Colon, Kreider and Simmons had made a 45-degree beeline from their pre-snap positions to create a human wall fronting Reid. It's in open space where Simmons shows his athleticism, and after exploding off the ball, he leads interference before punishing Bullocks some ten yards downfield. Colon, also surprisingly nimble, was Simmons' wingman, though, amazingly, he made it through the play without touching a soul. But he was in position to... Kreider made his way out of the backfield and blew up Kaesviharn three yards into the play, which gave Reid a clear path down the numbers.
While all hell broke loose on the right, the backside was responsible for occupying the remaining defenders. At the snap, Okobi was pushed into the backfield by Grant, but managed to occupy him long enough for Batch to deliver the ball; Kemoeatu engaged Thomas quickly, but the defensive tackle sniffed the screen and turned to pursue the play; Starks weaved his way through several defenders, avoiding contact in the process, leaving Davenport -- who slid to Batch's left at the snap -- to block Peak.
At this point, only two Saints were unblocked -- Thomas and Shanle -- and Thomas was so far out of frame that he didn't even make an appearance as Reid was tackled and players congregated around the ball. Shanle, however, took one step back at the snap, diagnosed the play, and effortlessly made his way through strewn bodies and flailing blockers to bring down Reid 11 yards later. It's not clear who was responsible for Shanle -- presumably Starks would've been better served blocking the Saints linebacker instead of taking a Sunday stroll through Canton. But it showed how the seemingly innocuous -- a missed block on the backside, in this case -- can be the difference between a first down and a 72-yard rumble.
Some credit should go to Shanle too. He didn't overcommit, maintained his gap assignment, looked for cues from the offense, and reacted. Sure, an 11-yard gain hardly seems like a victory for the defense, but the alternative could've been much worse.
Truthfully, in this particular circumstance, just about any of the Steelers' wideouts would've gone for a first down. The narrow running lane created primarily by Simmons' hustle didn't offer much room for improvisation. But that won't always be the case (hopefully, Starks won't always not block somebody). Reid, like Holmes, screams big-play potential. Unlike Holmes, though, he is still a little rough around the edges. I liken him to the 2004 version of Willie Parker. Remember that meaningless Week 17 game against the Bills, when Parker went for 102 -- including a 58-yard scamper -- against a good Buffalo team fighting for a playoff spot? Those moments remind you how far Parker has come in such a short time. And soon we could be having the same conversation about Reid.
Despite the muff and fumble in the Saints game, I have no concerns about Willie Reid the return man. And with a few months' experience, I suspect I'll feel the same way about Willie Reid the wideout. (Somebody might want to point that out to Nate Washington.) And when he finally "gets it", the Steelers could have Reid, Holmes and Parker on the field at the same time. Which means this team will always be just a play away.
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