It was the final preseason game, and on the sidelines were many with the look of "This is it." With the final cuts approaching, it was their last go-round.
My "last go-round" preseason game was 30 years ago and there was an overwhelming sense of finality of the journey that began with a phone call from Chuck Noll during the draft. As I taped my hands one more time, I thought of all the blood, sweat and tears that I'd put into training camp. It was coming down to the last game, and it was a very sober moment.
* Though they didn't face the Carolina Panthers' first unit, offensively or defensively, the Steelers first-team offense looked as if they were sputtering coming out of the gate.
Some of that had to do with rookie Maurkice Pouncey. Noticeably jumpy early on, Maurkice had an illegal procedure penalty, and later snapped high to the shot-gun and caused Ben Roethlisberger to play one-man volleyball while Pouncey was being turned by a blitzing linebacker. This wasn't his finest moment
But this is what I like about the young man: On a first quarter run play, he drove veteran defensive tackle Louis Leonard off the ball -- and kept driving, and driving. Leonard appeared ready to fly the white flag at one point, but Pouncey would have none of it. Maurkice threw Leonard to the ground like a rag doll.
I hate to say this but on a veteran line it's a shame when the standard bearer for blocking to the whistle is a rookie. But it's true, and the rest of the guys need to match that discipline. And yes folks, it's a mindset and a discipline. Blocking is as much want-to as how-to.
Later on, the Maurkice pulverized a linebacker who flew too close to the line of scrimmage on a pass play. That was one Panther that found the sidelines were a long way from the center of the field after he managed to get upright and gimp his way off
* Keenan Lewis rebounded nicely from a lousy outing in Denver. Keenan looked nothing like the turnstile-spinning, confused young man who melted down in Mile High. Will Gay started at the left CB, but Keenan got into action in the second quarter.
On a now route, in which the QB throws to a WR on the line of scrimmage with a CB playing off, Keenan came up and made a nice stick for minimal gain.
What I liked wasn't the wild look of a young buck desperate to make a play, but a professional CB reading the play, closing the gap quickly, getting his hips lowered and chopping his feet while maintaining a center balanced position and driving through the tackle with his head up.
Later on in the drive they tested Keenan with an out and up route which was part of his undoing in Denver. But, unlike last week, Keenan didn't bite and ran stride for stride with the WR and Ike Taylored it (dropped an interception). It would've been a tough pick, but he certainly made the play.
Last of all the good things Lewis did was setting the edge on a sweep to his side. Lewis is built in the mold of the big strong CBs that the Steelers love to employ. Lewis controlled the attempted blocker, and moved into his run-zone, held his ground and played outside-in.
* Dennis Dixon got into the game after Byron Leftwich hurt his knee. Three plays were all we would see of Dennis, with one significant play. Emmanuel Sanders turned the CB around like he was Keenan Lewis in Denver. Sanders ran a great route, Dixon made an excellent throw, and it added up to a quick six.
* What intrigued me and made me hang around the end of the bench area was a desire to see what Bruce Arians would say to Dennis. I know how much B.A. has invested in this young man. It's not easy to win the trust of an offensive coordinator. Dennis has come on so strongly during camp that B.A. needed to find out if Dennis could handle the whole enchilada of the playbook and run the entire offense. Four mental errors in Denver took Dennis out of the starting QB conversation. That one throw and Leftwich's injury put him back into that conversation.
After the tumultuous high-flying hip bumps and high-fiving that comes with a touchdown on the sidelines, Bruce came up to Dennis, put him in a nice side-headlock and shook him with a fatherly grin that said: Where was this in Denver?
* From the reaction of the doctors and trainers after they checked out Byron's knee, it didn't look good. I watched as Byron re-enacted the blow he received once he was on the sideline, and without seeing the replay he got the old high-low treatment, with the low part knee level. Unfortunately when a QB strides into a throw and his forward foot gets planted by the weight transfer, he is literally welded to the ground.
Some guys throw off their back foot, throw falling away, or more from a central balance point. Byron is an old school upright stride-into-and-transfer-all-your-weight-on-the-lead-leg thrower. Once Byron is planted, he's sunk in on one leg like your average mailbox out by the driveway.
John Norwig, the head trainer attempted to get a look at the injury by running over to the Steelers' replay tent and see what he could see. I don't know what he saw, if anything, but it couldn't have been good.
* Ramon Foster must've been feeling a little heat by a surging Kraig Urbik because he played the most impassioned football of his preseason. Foster got reps at RT, RG and LG. He also recorded pancakes in each position. If anybody has taken up the call of Pouncey's block-till- the-whistle, Ramon has.
* Urbik is one of those young guys who's starting to figure it out. But I don't think he'll overtake Ramon.
* Stevenson Sylvester has played his way onto the roster. I don't know how they're gonna get it done. I've never heard of a team keeping five inside ‘backers, but this guy can play. Yes he plays high, and yes he can be taken for a ride. But his "See-do" (see it, then do it) reaction time has shortened considerably.
Stevenson even showed a nice knack for timing the snap cadence and getting pressure, plus a nice arm-over swim move where he dodged a TE and a RB to pressure the QB.
* I spent a lot of time watching Ziggy Hood. The attention to detail this guy shows he's listening to Mitch (D Line coach) and watching Aaron Smith carefully. His hand fighting is excellent, and his power lockout from the ground up on run plays is even better.
Ziggy is so strong in his upper and lower body, and he plays with a body angle that gives him leverage over everybody he lines up against. He can stack bodies like cordwood, just what you want from a run-playing 3-4 DE.
* Because of Sylvester, Renaud Williams was the sixth inside linebacker in the conversation. But I watched Renaud pick his way through traffic and launch himself into the air to bring down a back on a short gain. I love his reckless abandon playing style.
* Ryan Mundy continues to impress me. He's making man-sized leaps. Mundy is a big, strong dude, and the way he flattened a receiver in the fourth quarter on a checkdown, breaking on the ball as it was thrown and smackulating the bejeebers out him, was most impressive. Tackling guys with authority is a sign of maturation.
* The Crezdon Butler played well. In the fourth quarter, Butler showed how to get knocked on his duff and still make a tackle on the kickoff. But before that he made a nice play while covering a receiver on a short route. It looks as if Crezdon has overtaken Joe Burnett.