PRE-SEASON OPENER ANALYSIS
By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers picked up right where they left off last season with costly mistakes and stalled drives in the red zone that yielded field goals instead of touchdowns.
The end result was a 18-13 loss to the New York Giants in the preseason opener for both teams Saturday night at Heinz Field.
The only Steelers touchdown was scored by the defense early in the fourth quarter, as the ball was snapped over the head of Giants quarterback Ryan Nassib, and linebacker Adrian Robinson recovered it in the end zone.
“There were some positives and some negatives,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. “I thought we controlled the line of scrimmage, (and) I thought we ran the ball effectively and efficiently. I also thought we were able to stop the run. Obviously, you can’t give up big plays. You can’t get penalized in the manner in which we were. Those things, we have to clean up.”
The Steelers’ first-team offense got off to a quick start, as running back Isaac Redman ran hard and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit fullback Will Johnson for nine yards on third-and-three. LaRod Stephens-Howling replaced Redman was even sharper than Redman, but a holding penalty by right offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert made it third-and-16. Roethlisberger was sacked on the next play to force a punt.
Drew Butler crushed a 55-yarder that was returned just three yards, but linebacker Marshall McFadden was penalized for being illegally downfield, so Butler had to re-kick. That attempt was blocked and returned for eight yards to the 5. The Steelers defense stiffened, however, and the Giants had to settle for a 23-yard Josh Brown field goal.
“It was a good start,” Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said about the defensive stand. We know that we’ll get put into situations like that during the year. In order for us to be a good defense, we have to go out there and make stops no matter how much field is left. That was a good start.”
Stephens-Howling ran six times for 35 yards and two first downs, and Roethlisberger connected with Emmanuel Sanders for two first downs. The second one was a 14-yarder to the 20. Stephens-Howling finished with seven carries for 40 yards.
“(LaRod) had some cuts on the back side, and he’s a great running back,” Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said. “He has great vision, and he got outside and made some plays. (Overall), we had a lot of productive plays. It’s an awesome start for us, and we just need to keep building throughout camp.”
After an incomplete pass, Roethlisberger appeared to find Antonio Brown in the end zone, but the fourth-year wideout could only get one foot inbounds. A nine-yard pass to Sanders made it fourth-and-one at the 11, but the Steelers opted to have Shaun Suisham kick a 34-yard field goal to tie the score, 3-3.
“I would say that our run game is doing really good right now,” Antonio Brown said. “The offensive line is creating space, and we’re playing in sync. We don’t want to reflect too much on last year, but I think we’re a lot farther ahead at this point than we were last year.
“(But) we need to be alert of where we’re at on the field, (and) I need to be in control of my body on the sideline. As a team, we need to get touchdowns and not just three points.”
Roethlisberger was pleased with the running game as well.
“I thought the line did a good job opening the holes, and the zone blocking that everyone has stressed,” Roethlisberger said. “I thought (LaRod) did a great job of hitting the holes, as well as Isaac Redman. We wanted to establish an identity early of running the ball, and I think we did a good job with that.”
The Giants went 80 yards in just six plays to break that tie, as Eli Manning threw a 57-yard scoring pass to Victor Cruz. The other big play in the drive was a 16-yard pass from Manning to wideout Rueben Randle. The pass to Cruz was a third-and-four play, as cornerback Will Gay couldn’t say with him, and safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark provided support that was too late.
“I’m upset that we gave up the touchdown, but we’re just going to have to sit and chew on that for a while until we play again,” Keisel said. “(So), we just have to seize the moments, be on the same page and run the defense. When we do that, we’re good.”
The third Steelers series opened with Bruce Gradkowski at quarterback, and he spread the ball around. However, a potential 21-yard hookup with rookie Markus Wheaton was challenged and ruled incomplete. The drive stalled from there, and Butler had to punt.
Gradkowski found tight end David Paulson for 13 yards and Wheaton for eight on fourth-and-two to keep the ensuing drive alive, but short Dwyer runs led to a 41-yard Suisham field goal to cut the lead to 10-6.
That could have been the halftime score, but the Giants were able to get a short field goal by Brown to make it 13-6 after a 10-play, 68-yard drive in 1:45 got them into scoring range. Outside linebacker Jason Worilds, who had a sack earlier in the game, roughed Giants backup David Carr and also had a late hit in the drive. The two penalties for 30 yards were all the Giants needed to get into the red zone with time running out.
The mistakes continued in the second half for the Steelers, as quarterback Landry Jones and running back Baron Batch collided near the goal line. The ball bounced into the end zone, and Jones had to fall on it for a Giants safety. Punt returner David Gilreath fumbled an attempt midway through the third quarter that could have helped the Giants put the game away, but the Steelers defense held and the ensuing field-goal attempt from 38 yards was wide left.
Brown eventually kicked a 47-yarder with 4:32 left to set the final score.
Tomlin noted that he did not play Le’Veon Bell because the rookie running back was “a little sore and slowed” during the past week. Bell had a left knee injury that cost him a couple practice days, and Tomlin did not believe he was healthy enough later in the week to play Saturday night.