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By Nick DeWitt,
With the first preseason game in the books for the Pittsburgh Steelers, it’s time to evaluate the best and the worst performances for the black and gold. Several players, some of them surprisingly so, distinguished themselves their first night in Philadelphia. Others were not so fortunate.
Here’s a look at the biggest winners and losers from the first action for the Steelers.
WINNER: Steve McLendon, NT
The Steelers drafted Alameda Ta’amu in this year’s class to be the future of the nose tackle position once Casey Hampton retired. However, McLendon may have something to say about that. He’s come into camp ready to prove he’s capable of starting and being the answer.
Against the Eagles, he looked like someone you want to have on the field every down.
I was beyond impressed with the tenacity he showed and the explosiveness exhibited. Casey Hampton has gradually slowed down over the last couple of seasons, so many have forgotten just how important a big play guy in the middle can be.
There was a shining reminder on Thursday night.
McLendon made a huge sack on Michael Vick and made some big tackles in the running game as well. It was a very impressive night and the ability to collapse the middle of the offensive line will come in handy for the linebackers.
LOSER: Stevenson Sylvester, ILB
I’ve written a lot about the meteoric fall from grace that we’ve seen from Stevenson Sylvester. After his rookie season, many said he would be the guy who’d step in when James Farrior hung up the cleats. Well, that day is here. So far, the Steelers have nearly drafted a replacement for Farrior and pondered handing the job to veteran Larry Foote.
Sylvester’s play against the Eagles certainly didn’t distinguish him well. He made some poor choices while playing in run coverage that led to a wide-open hole. Then, he made an inexplicable decision to leap when he had a sure sack. The result was an escape for Nick Foles and a long touchdown pass.
Sylvester has shown consistently both in camp and last year during the season that he just doesn’t seem to understand this defensive system well enough to play in it regularly. He looked lost a lot of times against Philadelphia and I’m wondering if he now is on the roster bubble.
WINNER: Chris Rainey, RB
One of the more intriguing stories coming out of camp this year has been the speed and work of rookie running back Chris Rainey. We finally got a look at it in a game situation on Thursday and everything we saw was pretty impressive.
I wasn’t sure how much Rainey would be on the field offensively, but he got a lot of looks there. His speed is going to be very deadly once Todd Haley gets a better handle on exactly what situations best fit him.
In the return game, Rainey also looked good and has probably gotten the inside track on the job already. He didn’t make any big mistakes and he also showed just how elusive he can be with his very first return.
I was impressed with how good Rainey’s balance was. He was able to keep his feet despite some hits and some near-hits. I also thought he showed good explosiveness off the line and I’m intrigued to see how much he can get involved in the receiving game as well. His long touchdown grab in the third quarter was very promising and showed his speed and his cutback skills.
LOSER: Kelvin Beachum, OG
I’m just not impressed at all. The reports out of practice haven’t been encouraging at all. Beachum seems lost and his blocks lack any kind of finish or polish. Even for a rookie, he looks like a poor choice on the offensive line.
Against the Eagles, his blocking was bad and he gave up several free releases that led to negative yardage. Beachum is not going to make a roster unless he can compete against the other linemen. Right now, he looks like the weak link.
The big problem I see so far is that Beachum just can’t block defensive linemen. He couldn’t hold his half of a double team at one point and he just, especially for his size, looks weak and without any explosiveness. He’s getting blown off the ball and his footwork is terrible.
WINNER: Ben Roethlisberger, QB
It was a good debut for the Steelers’ passer. He led a very nice, long drive. The passes were very crisp and he looked healthy and strong. There have been some injury concerns during the first weeks of camp, but there was no evidence of that during the game.
I also thought that Roethlisberger, for all the talk about being in a new system, really looked comfortable. There weren’t any big hiccups and he looked like he was ready to run this offense at full speed. That’s encouraging, especially since there’s a lot of talk about how different the new playbook is from the old one.
I think Roethlisberger will be fine. It’s a small sample size so far, but I was very encouraged by what I saw and I think this offense is tailor-made for his strengths and the strengths of this roster. We’ll know more next week against Indianapolis, but for now, a big win for Big Ben.
LOSER: Curtis Brown, CB
In a thick competition for the starting job and nickel job at cornerback, Curtis Brown was not at all impressive for the Steelers against backup player from Philadelphia. The second-year corner looked like a rookie and seemed to be slow-footed.
Two touchdown passes completely victimized Brown. The first saw him get burned on a 70-yard scoring pass in which he looked like he almost gave up toward the end of the run, instead of running all the way into the end zone with the receiver. That lack of effort will be sure to draw the ire of Mike Tomlin, Dick LeBeau and Carnell Lake.
The second scoring pass he had an easy breakup on a high, arcing pass from Nick Foles. Instead of turning around he continued to run away from the ball with the receiver and never turned his head. The ball was caught for a touchdown in which Brown again failed to make a tackle despite being in the receiver’s back pocket.
WINNER: Al Woods, DE
It was only one major play, but for a guy trying to make the roster, one play can make a big difference. In Woods’ case, his definitely earned him some more playing time.
Woods made a beautiful pick, particularly considering his inexperience and his position. He caught the ball clean and immediately was on the run for the end zone. He nearly stepped out of a tackle but barely lost his footing inside the five. The Steelers failed to punch it in, but the play itself was excellent.
The Steelers may or may not elect to go with four defensive ends. If they do, there’s a big competition amongst many young players for that final spot. Woods is a bit older than those guys (this is his third year in the NFL), but he was the first player in with the second stringers on the line. That’s a good sign.
After his big play, he should get more looks now.
LOSER: Jeremy Kapinos, P
It’s hard to beat on a guy for not playing because he’s injured, but in a position that’s very isolated and easy to evaluate, not playing is a bad idea. Jeremy Kapinos not only didn’t play, he gave rookie Drew Butler the opportunity to make a very impressive debut.
Butler boomed a 61-yard punt that was beautiful and he looks very comfortable with the punting duties. That’s a bad sign for a position in which only one player can be kept. The Steelers are tired of replacing injured punters. That’s another bad sign for Kapinos, who’s missed a lot of time so far.
The door isn’t slammed shut just yet, but if he can’t get back on the field soon, Kapinos will be looking for work unless Butler falls to pieces. That just doesn’t seem likely.
WINNER: Emmanuel Sanders, WR
With Mike Wallace still holding out, the Steelers are looking for the starter opposite Antonio Brown. The smart money has always been on Sanders, who is tantalizing when healthy. He looked 100 percent on Thursday and he made a nice touchdown grab in the first half to put an exclamation point on it.
Sanders showed good knowledge of the route tree and I think he can really play at any of the receiver positions throughout the offense. He looked fast and his fundamentals were sound. Overall, it was great work for a player who really needs to prove he’s healthy.
Sanders delivered some blocks as well and showed good ability in that department. While that’s not something that is exactly essential, it is something very important in a system that plans to emphasize a more effective and efficient rushing attack.
LOSER: Mike Wallace, WR
Whether it was Emmanuel Sanders looking like a starting receiver while playing during the first half or Marquis Maze looking competitive in the second half, the overall impression was simply one of “we don’t really need Mike Wallace to win games.”
That’s discouraging for a guy expecting a huge payday.
And I haven’t even mentioned that Antonio Brown looked just fine without Wallace taking double teams. That’s something I’ve heard mentioned a couple of times when people have referenced Brown’s success as proof Wallace isn’t needed. Well, we finally got a good look and the Steelers looked just as explosive without him.
I’ve written before about how Wallace is only hurting himself by wasting away on his couch. The selfish ego-driven show he’s putting on is wearing thin with fans and with the coaching staff in Pittsburgh. It’s foolish to think he’ll simply be welcomed back with open arms when he finally decides to dismount from his high horse and report.
After one game, I’d say we already have all the evidence necessary to close the book on Mike Wallace unless he decides to grow up.