The good news is that the team won't go winless in the preseason. Sure, we hear all the time that these games don't matter, but last year the Steelers were 0-4 in August and 8-8 for the year. In 2005, Pittsburgh was 3-1. And if that's too small a sample size for you, take a look at this. Obviously, winning doesn't guarantee anything – Steve Spurrier played his starters for three quarters during his first preseason in Washington, and that team won five regular-season games. (That the 'Skins only went 2-2 in the preseason – even with the first-team getting a lot of snaps – should've been a clue of the losing to follow.) The idea is for each unit to be competitive, minimize mistakes, and the score will take care of itself. And through two "pretend" games, the Steelers have had varying success in these departments.
While Max Starks continues to struggle, the running backs and wide receivers are two of the deepest units on the team. With that as background, here are some random thoughts from the Packers game:
I've decided not to worry about injuries. Instead, I'm just going to assume that Lawrence Timmons, who had successful groin-transplant surgery last week in Philly, is on the LaDainian Tomlinson preseason plan. Which basically means you won't see him until September. During last night's Chargers-Seahawks game, LdT explained that it's in his best interests to avoid the preseason games as long as he feels comfortable behind the offensive line, and is able to get his hit-the-hole timing down. Of course, the difference between Timmons and Tomlinson you can just about squeeze into the Grand Canyon, but this is my coping mechanism. Maybe Willie Parker is a more apt comparison. To me, that FWP didn't dress Saturday is a good thing. There's no rush to get him out there (I was at training camp last Wednesday and Thursday and although he was in civvies, he moved pretty well in some running back drills. What? What's that? I didn't tell you I was going to camp? Well, I'll have some stories for you later in the week...), and Pittsburgh can take longer looks at the four guys fighting for the two roster spots.
And when I say "four" I think I mean "three." Sure, Kevan Barlow is on the team, but he looked average against the Saints, average during the week, and slightly above average against the Packers. Assuming the Steelers keep five backs -- Parker, Dan Kreider, Najeh Davenport, plus two more -- you have to think it's a three-horse race: Carey Davis, Gary Russell and Verron Haynes. Let me just say that I love Verron. He might be the best dancer on the team. I'm going back a few years, but anybody remember when NFL Network aired the 2004 Eagles-Steelers Game of the Week? During pregame, there's a priceless shot of Haynes shimmying during warm-ups to Usher's (Featuring Ludacris & Lil Jon) "Yeah."
I know, that's hardly a reason to hope a guy makes the final 53, but it was that good. Plus, Haynes is a reliable blocker and sure-handed coming out of the backfield. All running backs can run, but not all of them are competent in pass protection. But Veron Haynes Dance Fever aside, it's going to be hard to keep Carey Davis and Gary Russell off the roster. Davis ran all over the Saints last week like he was Lawrence Phillips in a pick-up football game, and Saturday he showed the ability to make plays on the coverage units, as well as block out of the backfield. I don't see Russell, who has been the second-most effective first-year Steelers back, making it to the practice squad. Some injury-ravaged team will need a runner, and Russell will be gone. Look no further than Noah Herron for proof on that.
The upside to this, I guess, is that the 2007 running back situation is roughly one billion times better than the 2007 running back situation. Remember when I was put in the awkward position of defending Duce Staley while he ate his way out of his uniform? Yeah, that was embarrassing. (In retrospect, it was like defending your fat friend who claims diets don't work for him, only later you find out that he was stuffing his face with chocolate cake every night before bed.) And 12 months ago, the Steelers didn't even have Davenport on the roster. We were having legitimate conversations about why John Kuhn should make the team. The Davis/Russell/Haynes problem is a good one to have.
In light of Ed Bouchette's recent column on the fullback position fading into obsolescence -- something that might include letting Danny Kreider walk -- I'd make this suggestion: re-sign Kreider and let Max Starks walk. I mean, No. 35 is already a better blocker than Starks. And even if the team does away with the fullback position, at least in the conventional sense, Kreider could be a conversion project.
I'm half-kidding ... but I'm half-serious too. Truthfully, I don't think Kreider is going anywhere this year; he's too important. But for the sake of discussion, it's not a completely horrendous idea. Alright, maybe it is ... but did you see Starks this weekend? When Edmund Nelson starts calling you out, it's probably time to give serious consideration to the fallback plan. Here's what your favorite State Farm agent had to say following Max's failed takedown of KGB during another quarterback sack: "Max Starks looks absolutely awful on this play ... he just gets used and abused. And then he has the audacity to hold. That is not a good play by the big fella." Yeah, no kidding.
FanHouse's J.J. Cooper does more than bloviate, however. He actually watches film. And here's what he had to say about Mr. Starks following the Hall of Fame game:
The bad news is that Starks is still struggling with pass defense. He gave up two of the Steelers' three sacks (although Batch held on to the ball too long on one of those). He was also beaten badly twice on running plays. On one his man, Will Smith, tackled Davenport for a 3-yard loss. On another he didn't block anyone as Charles Grant helped limit Davenport to one yard. This may sound familiar: Starks showed some potential but still proved to be the least consistent offensive lineman among the starters.Cooper notes that Starks did well in run-blocking -- particularly at getting to the second level -- but that little nugget doesn't help either Big Ben or Chaz.
Like the running backs, the wide receivers are seemingly a very deep group. I spent a lot of time at camp gawking at Daniel Sepulveda, but in between longing stares and the world's dreamiest punter, I got a chance to watch the wideouts. Nate Washington has been maligned for lack of focus and butter fingers -- a combination that will earn you a plaque in the Lee Mays wing of the locker room -- but he'll be fine. At least I think he will. Two guys I'm not worried about, though, are Santonio Holmes and Willie Reid. If you'll indulge me, I have a college-sports-related analogy that will hopefully convey my point. During my heady days as a collegiate baseball player (lifetime batting average: .260, Woohoo!), I faced a handful of guys who would end up in the major leagues. Sean Casey, currently with the Tigers, is the most prominent example. He attended the University of Richmond and wasn't much to look at. Casey was pudgy and unathletic ... until he came to the plate. The ball jumped off his bat, making a sound that screamed "extra-base hit." I could spend all day taking batting practice and never replicate that sound. And neither could any of the hundreds of other guys I played against. Either you had it or you didn't. Casey had it. That explains the $7 million salary and 11-year major-league career.
Holmes and Reid have "it" too. This is going to sound weird, but they catch the ball differently than the other young guys. No, really. I never thought watching two dudes play pre-practice catch could be so mesmerizing, but ... well, I couldn't turn away. Sure, Cedrick Wilson made a little noise a few weeks ago and parlayed that into a big Hall of Fame game, but Big Ben has to sleep well at night because of Missy Peregrym, but also because he knows that anything he throws in Holmes' general vicinity will be a completion. And although Reid is currently the fifth option, I can't imagine that being the case for long.
While we wait for Reid's ascension up the depth chart, it's worth taking a step back and realizing how good this unit can be. Hines is Hines. Cedrick is either finally starting to get it, or should just be used against the Saints. I want to think Washington will be fine -- Ben sure has a lot of faith in him -- but I get this Steve Sax feeling about him. He'll make the eye-popping grab in traffic, but the simple stuff -- the 50-foot toss to first base on a routine grounder – well, forget about it. Twelve months is a long time in the NFL ... just ask Holmes. A player who was extremely shy, just trying to adjust to life in the NFL a year ago, is now a gregarious, smack-talking second-year Pro-Bowler-in-the-making. And he backs it up. Even though Reid might be used primarily in Slash-like situations this fall (slip screens, reverses, etc.), his contributions on special teams could be worth a win or two this season (right, Ricardo?).
We've still got three preseason games to go, and the final roster is a long way from being finalized. But unlike last year, the running backs and wideouts are deep. (Maybe even too deep if you're Walter Young). The offensive line, however, still has a ways to go. A good start might be replacing Starks with Willie Colon. On passing downs, anyway. Unless you think that's too obvious.