Between the lines: Preseason Game 3 Friday vs. the Vikings postgame analysis
Monday, August 25, 2008
Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
Post-Gazette writer Ed Bouchette takes a look beyond the stat sheet and postgame comments and analyzes where the Steelers are after preseason Game 3 Saturday vs. the Vikings -- a 12-10 win. A look at some of the position battles and story lines 15 days before the season opener vs. Houston:
Steelers defensive linemen think 30 is the new 25. Saturday night, they took a step toward making converts out of skeptics by shutting down Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, Chester Taylor and the NFL's No. 1 running team from last season.
The old guys up front, with a good supporting crew behind them, held the Vikings to 17 yards rushing in the first half -- 11 by Peterson and 5 by Taylor.
"It was a matter of us coming out and setting our mind to it," defensive end Aaron Smith, 32, said.
Of the seven top defensive linemen, only one will be under 30 by mid-September, reserve Nick Eason, 29.
Can these graybeards hold up for an entire season? It's the biggest question on a defense that led the NFL in fewest yards allowed last year.
"Actually, I think age is to our benefit because we have experience," Smith said. "Guys can rotate and get in there and play. If you have young backups, sometimes they don't know what they're doing when they get into a game. At least now with the veterans you know what to expect and how they'll perform."
The other veteran backups include newly signed Orpheus Roye, the oldest of the bunch at 35, and Travis Kirschke, 34, at end, and Chris Hoke, 32, at nose tackle.
"Shoot," Hoke said, "guys playing in their early 30s are playing like they're young now because we take care of our bodies year-round. Back in the day, when people didn't work out a lot and used training camp to get into shape, their bodies fell apart younger. We keep in shape year-round now, we can play longer."
Starting right end Brett Keisel turns 30, a dozen days after the regular season opens.
"I feel like I'm a spring buck," said Keisel, and on this line he is. "Besides Nick, I'm the youngest guy out there right now.
"We are young bucks, though. I still feel good, like I'm still improving. I think we still play really well up front. Obviously, we had some slipups last year but we've held ourselves to a high standard and I think we've done pretty good with that."
They proved it through a first half of work Saturday and they did not wait long to do so. Smith, on the Vikings' first offensive play, sacked quarterback Gus Frerotte. Next, Keisel tackled Peterson hard after a deep handoff from the shotgun for a 3-yard gain. By the end of that first series, the Vikings punted on fourth-and-19.
Later in the quarter, Smith made consecutive solo tackles on Taylor for no gain in the first two plays of a series.
Smith and Hampton moved into the starting lineup together in 2001, and they have formed one of the best 3-4 lines in the league since then. They showed no wear Saturday.
This is the week all cuts must be made in the NFL. Teams must reduce their rosters to 75 by tomorrow and 53 by Saturday. That turns the focus not on who will win starting jobs, but who will win jobs at all.
Among those fighting for them are safeties Anthony Madison and Tyrone Carter. The Steelers likely will keep nine, possibly 10 defensive backs and some, such as rookie Roy Lewis and William Gay, are making their case by playing cornerback and safety.
Madison, who is just 5-9 and 180 pounds, is making his case by playing special teams the way Chidi Iwuoma did. His tackle on Vikings punt returner Aundrae Allison in the second quarter should be required study for punt coverage. He hit Allison without hesitation, wrapped him up and kept him down for a 1-yard loss.
Carter, who lost some favor when he became the starting free safety near the end of last season, made two good plays at the goal line in the second quarter to thwart a Vikings thrust that eventually was successful on third down. But then, he missed a tackle on a run around end later, something that he did too many times in the playoff loss to Jacksonville.
It doesn't look good
Veteran return man Eddie Drummond will have a tough time making it with his hometown team. Signed the first week of training camp to try to bolster a lackluster return game, Drummond has done little to convince coaches his best days are not behind him.
He fell down fielding a second-half punt Saturday night and has not looked as good as other candidates, such as Mewelde Moore and Santonio Holmes. Because Drummond really plays no other position, he's not even a luxury the Steelers cannot afford.
Paul Ernster presented a nice case for winning the job as the Steelers' punter Saturday night. He punted four times, averaged 48.0 gross and 48.8 net because the Vikings returned only two of them for minus-3 yards. He also had three of his four punts inside the 20.
"I thought Paul Ernster did a nice job punting for us," coach Mike Tomlin said.
Ernster also kicked off three times in the second half and held on Jeff Reed's final three field goals -- Mitch Berger held on the first. Berger did not punt Saturday, but also has done a decent job with an average of 47.5 net and 42.0 on four punts, three of them inside the 20.
Willie Reid may have won himself the fifth spot at wide receiver Saturday over Dallas Baker. Reid got a lot of playing time, sometimes even when three or four receivers were used in the first half, and led the team with five receptions for 55 yards.
Two of his receptions came in crucial spots. On fourth-and-3 in the third quarter, he caught an 8-yard pass from Byron Leftwich and hung on as he was pushed out of bounds to keep a scoring drive going. In the fourth quarter, he made a diving catch over the middle from Leftwich for a 22-yard gain.
Baker caught three passes for 23 yards but he also had a big third-down drop.
Mewelde Moore looks good as a third-down back and return man, but Willie Parker also continues to play well on third downs and likely will get a chance to play some in those situations this year. Parker is not afraid to stick his nose into the chest of a blitzing linebacker and that's the No. 1 requirement of a third-down back who lines up next to the quarterback in the shotgun formation.
First published on August 25, 20