Steelers make looking bad look good

The offense sputtered against the Vikings but it was a perfect test for the team with the NFL's toughest schedule.

The preseason is effectively over. The top of the depth chart is set and next week's game will be used as one last chance for players on the bubble to make the final roster. All in all, I'm feeling pretty good about the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers. I'll admit to being somewhat skeptical during both the Eagles and Bills games -- especially the Bills game -- but watching the other AFC North teams this month reminded me that talent is relative. Are the Steelers the best team in the AFC? Nah, probabaly not. Do they need to be to win the division? Nope. While I'm not ready to concede that they can't win the conference, I'm well aware of the issues at offensive line and the depth at defensive line as two potentially large stumbling blocks to this team's success in '08.

But with the galaxy's toughest regular season schedule set to commence in less than two weeks, Saturday night's effort against the Vikings was revealing for different reasons. For starters, the first-team offense sputtered for 30 minutes, but, hey, that's what happens when you face the NFL's best run defense. I have absolutely no problems with how the game was played in the first half. Sure, it would've been nice to string together a few first downs, break a couple big runs and hit a deep pass or two, but you know what? This ain't the Bengals or Browns defense.

The Vikes are legit, and it starts up front with the two Williams' and a Redneck. Still, despite the constant in-your-face pass rush, Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked twice. I know, I know: he was pressured plenty, and knocked down a few more times, but I thought he got rid of the ball quicker than he did last season, and he finally seems to understand that throwing the ball away is much better for your career than taking a bone-jarring hit for a 10-yard loss because there was a chance for a big play. It might not seem like much, but there only so many sacks Ben can take before John Norwig will need a broom and dustbin to get him off the field that one last time.

Second, the defense looked to be in Dick LeBeau-tastic form, a much different unit than got treaded by the Toronto Bills last week. And they did it all without Troy Polamalu. Finally, the special teams has been a force this preseason. If I've said it once, I've said it ... well, once: Mike Tomlin was right to keep Bob Ligashesky around after last year's effort. Actually, I was one of the knee-jerkers who called for Tomlin to fire Ligashesky approximately five minutes after the playoff loss to Jacksonville (and 20 minutes after that fateful 3rd-and-6 call -- I'm still fired up about that one). Didn't happen, and through three weeks (and save one Leodis McKelvin kick return for six against the second-teamers) it seems like the right call.

Interestingly, I ended that Jan. 7 column with this:

If there's anything Tomlin can learn from Bill Cowher it's that you can never surround yourself with too many great assistants. Which means that as soon as Houck's under contract, Tomlin should try to convince Bobby April to come back to Pittsburgh.

Two weeks ago, I was at Bills training camp in Pittsford, NY (long story) and after an evening practice, I was on the field with a friend and spent five minutes talking to April. Unfortunately, the conversation never turned to special teams or his interest in returning to Pittsburgh (we mostly talked about historically themed vacation spots; weird, I know), but I like to think that the interaction has everything to do with the Steelers' special teams turnaround. It's called fanaticism for a reason, people; rationality doesn't have a lot to do with it. I'm just sorry the encounter didn't take place a month ago; maybe Daniel Sepulveda would still be healthy...

Back on earth, some things that caught my eye during the first viewing of Steelers-Vikings tilt:

Chris Kemoeatu: The first-team offensive line gave up its first sack of the preseason, and, frankly, much of the unit looked out of sorts against the Vikings front seven. Hardly surprising, but I thought that Kemoeatu, who looks more and more like a crazed grizzly bear dressed in a bumble bee costume every day, was very comfortable working in space, especially on running plays. While Marvel Smith had his hands full with Jared Allen (understandably), Kemoeatu was getting upfield and obliterating linebackers. For all the talk of Kendall Simmons' twinkly toes, to my untrained eye, he doesn't come close to matching the second-level awesomeness Kemoeatu displays.

Rashard Mendenhall: Turnovers are bad; I know this. Yet, it didn't faze me the first or second time it happened. Maybe Willie Parker has desensitized me to fumbles, or maybe I was taking the longer view -- that Mendenhall has a chance to be a very special player. After the Week 1 Eagles game, there were some concerns that he ran too high. He's nipped that in the bud, along with his predilection for dancing in the backfield seconds before taking a two-yard loss. Against Minnesota, he hit the hole hard, and after running into a brick wall for the first 20 minutes, finally found some space, made a few would-be tacklers look silly, and ended up with 79 yards on 15 carries (5.3 ypc average). It wasn't perfect, but it's comforting to know that the Steelers have another explosive player coming out of the backfield (and this one actually catches passes!).

Quick note: I might be Gary Russell's biggest fan. He has been about as far from spectacular as a running back could look through three preseason games, but he brings it on every carry. It's hard to tell much about his open-field abilities because he's yet to be in the open field. I give him credit for punishing the three or four defenders who meet him in the backfield on every carry, though. There's something to be said for that, I think.

Limas Sweed: Apparently, Sweed is trying REALLY HARD to make plays. So hard, in fact, that he's pressing to the point that he looks more like Lee Mays on a bad day than the team's second-round pick. Don't care. The Steelers don't need Sweed to do anything in 2008 except continue to get comfortable in this offense. That's it. If he happens to snag a few passes in the process, great. It would be nice if he could push Nate Washington, the fourth-year wideout in his contract year, but maybe that's what Willie Reid is for. No, really.

Willie Reid: I've been a Reid supporter since first seeing him at his rookie training camp. And he's been nothing but a disappointment since. Except for the Vikings game. Reid, who has at times looked to be all out of confidence, got a few snaps with the first team and then played very well with the second unit. He was one of the few people capable of hauling in Byron Leftwich fastballs, and made a nifty little diving grab in the second half that kept the chains moving. I have no idea if Reid will ever be an NFL returner, but with Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore (and, sigh, Santonio Holmes), maybe he doesn't need to be. At this point, I'd take a reliable fourth or fifth wide receiver, which doesn't seem like too much to ask.

Tyrone Carter: There's been some discussion about Carter's chances of making the final 53. He's seemingly always on the bubble this time of year, but despite getting outrun by a chubby quarterback in last year's wild card loss, Carter can still lay the wood to people -- as long as he's in position. Ask Adrian Peterson, who rushed 12 times for 21 yards, and by my count, was tackled 12 times. All by Carter. I could be misremembering, but Carter's performance stuck out, primarily because he was making plays near the line of scrimmage, and because he wasn't asked to cover anybody. This makes me think that the Steelers might want to keep him around as a linebacker-safety hybrid. The Cowboys are trying to phase Roy Williams out of his coverage responsibilities and Adam Archuleta is hoping to save his career by moving to linebacker. If nothing else, Carter has proven on various occasions that he's great against the run and less so against the pass. With Polamalu's immediate future still unclear, Carter is worth keeping around.

And as part of my campaign to offer embattled third-year player Anthony Smith only positive reinforcement, I'll end with this: he looked great at strong safety. Maybe his future, like Carter's, is in the box. I think we can all agree -- Anthony included -- that centerfield isn't his strong suit. Not even in that end-of-training-camp softball game.

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