The Steelers team that took the field last night in Pittsburgh against the Indianapolis Colts figures to look very little like the finished product it is hoped this team will become. Missing from the field were James Harrison, Rashard Mendenhall, Casey Hampton, Mike Wallace, Max Starks, Jason Worilds, and Isaac Redman, and those starters that did dress played very little after the first quarter. Under those circumstances, it is always difficult to read too much into what transpires, but here are several items that I took away from the Steelers 26-24 win over the Colts:
1. David Gilreath is separating himself from the pack to be the #5 WR. Once Mike Wallace gets into the lineup, the Steelers’ top four WR will not only be set, they’ll be the best group in football. The battle that has been waging in camp is to determine who replaces Hines Ward as the #5 WR, and the battle figured to be between 7th round pick Toney Clemons and Derrick Williams, a local guy with a few years of NFL experience. Instead, David Gilreath, who spent 2011 bouncing around on the practice squads of the Colts, Rams, and Bills, has emerged as the leading candidate to open the year on the 53-man roster. Gilreath caught 4 passes for 78 yards last night, picking up first downs on all 4 receptions, and Gilreath was also an accomplished kickoff returner at Wisconsin, something that may prove valuable given that Antonio Brown will likely be relieved of those duties in 2012.
2. The Steelers’ RB depth appears to be very solid. Rashard Mendenhall was taken off the PUP list last week, meaning that the team believes that he will be able to play sometime before Week 8 (he would have had to sit out the first 6 games had he remained on the list), and it appears that the team is targeting a return during Week 5 (the Steelers have a bye in Week 4). Isaac Redman missed last night’s game with a groin injury, but Jonathan Dwyer and Chris Rainey were both effective carrying the ball in the absence of Mendenhall and Redman. Dwyer looks much slimmer and quicker than he has in past seasons, and Rainey is electrifying in space. Baron Batch, the 2011 training camp phenom who missed the season with a torn ACL, failed to get untracked in the running game but still appears to be a lock to make the 53-man roster and battle with Rainey to be the 3rd down back, due largely to Batch’s ability to catch and pick up the blitz.
3. Get well, Max Starks. Rookie 2nd round pick Mike Adams struggled again last night, and this time it was largely against backups for the Colts. Adams allowed two sacks and began receiving TE help after the second one; otherwise the figure may have been higher. It’s obviously too soon to give up on Adams, but he is clearly in no way ready to be a starting LT in the NFL. Max Starks is off the PUP list and is reportedly on track to be ready to start the opener in Denver. Starks is a pedestrian – at best – LT in the NFL, but throwing Adams into the mix against Elvis Dumerville and the Denver crowd would not end well. Or start well. The remainder of the offensive line looks to be in the best shape it has for years, with a Colon-Pouncey-DeCastro interior that will match up with anyone’s by mid-season, but the Steelers need Max Starks to man LT effectively while Mike Adams gets his feet under him at this level.
4. Can Danny Hrapmann unseat Shaun Suisham? Danny Hrapmann, a rookie UDFA out of Southern Miss, continued his impressive performance in preseason by kicking 4 second half FG last night, including making the gamewinner despite it being largely blocked. Hrapmann is 5-for-5 on FG this preason and displays ample leg on kickoffs (something that is much less of a factor with kickoffs coming from the 35-yard-line). Suisham missed 8 FG’s during an erratic 2011 season, and it’s not like he was Adam Vinatieri to start with. The kicking job is probably still Suisham’s, but Hrapmann is making a case to replace him if Suisham falters during the final two weeks of the preseason.
5. The LB corps is dinged up. Jason Worilds has yet to play a snap this preseason, and last week the Steelers lost both James Harrison and Stevenson Sylvester for at least the rest of the preseason, if not longer, with knee injuries. 2nd year man Chris Carter has replaced Harrison at ROLB and was better against Philadelphia than he was last night. The injuries open the door for other guys to make the team and/or increase their roles, and rookie UDFA Adrian Robinson has stood out far more than offseason acquisition Brandon Johnson or holdover Mortty Ivy thus far. The injury to Stevenson should create more playing time for rookie 3rd round pick Sean Spence, but in two games Spence has been largely unnoticeable on the field.
6. Can Will Johnson be the FB? With David Johnson done for the season with a torn ACL and MCL, Will Johnson is the only FB on the roster. Johnson, who went undrafted out of West Virginia after 2011 and was out of football last season, has played well in his role as a lead blocker thus far and appears to be holding up well. With Heath Miller, Leonard Pope, and Weslye Saunders locks to make the 53-man roster, the only question appears to be if Johnson will make the squad as a FB or if they will keep a 4th TE, likely Justin Peelle.
Up next are the Bills, and the opener in Denver is now 20 days away.