Scouting for Steelers, Part 1

Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports

My game recap of Steelers/Eagles was, shall we say, less than enthusiastic. It’s pretty hard to get excited about a game in which the Steelers did not score a single point, and which featured four interceptions in the first half. But even as I watched, and even as I wrote it, I knew in my heart of hearts that impressing Steeler Nation was not the purpose of this, or any, preseason game. The coaching staff is looking for separation as they have to get serious about who to cut, and they are looking to avoid injuries, especially for the guys they can’t afford to lose.

This was brought home very clearly by a comment to the article by George Siegal, who said:

…the preseason is about individual performance, not team performance… [Craig] Wolfley said that if you watch a preseason game as a game, you’ll be disappointed, but if you watch it with a scouting eye, watching certain players to see how they play, it will be interesting. I’m paraphrasing, not direct quotes.

Both of those apply to this game in a big way. It seems to me that Coach T uses these games to evaluate players even more than most other teams. Other teams seem to get excited about the game, Tomlin gets excited (as excited as he gets anyway) about a player making a good play. He will get his backups in against the opponents first team as much as he can. Some coaches are concerned about winning because their teams need to learn how to win, that’s not the case in Pittsburgh. I’ve seen Coach T put second or third team players into bad situations to see how they do.

David Todd said in the post game show that in the last 15 preseason games the Steelers are 2-13. I have to approve of Tomlins methods, because it seems to work. He could keep the stars out for the entire preseason and they wouldn’t miss a beat and the players who need the reps are getting them. But it sure makes these games tough to watch..

In the musical world, groups will occasionally hold an open dress rehearsal, which is essentially what a preseason game is, to thank donors or provide educational outreach or for various other reasons. I’ve been involved in a few of them, either as a conductor or a musician, and I can tell you they aren’t exactly the same as a regular rehearsal.

The reality for musical organizations is different. They can’t afford to give anyone the impression that they aren’t very good. So you don’t usually work on the sort of nitty gritty stuff which is tedious to observe but makes for a dazzling performance when other people are watching. Maybe if you’re the Pittsburgh Symphony. Maybe. But if you are a small organization trying to increase audience, you can’t afford to suck. You certainly wouldn’t view it as a suitable opportunity to give a bunch of unknowns a tryout.

The Steelers are in an enviable position.  They can afford to work on the product during an exhibition game because they would have to suck a lot, for rather a long time, before people stopped watching. Fans might complain, but complaining is something Steeler Nation views as a God-given right, and I can’t imagine the team listens to it.

So I’m going to gird up my loins, go back, and review the tape from a scouting position. Since I’ve been doing the “Training Camp Battle” series, the obvious thing to do is to look at whether the guys on the bubble have improved their chances or possibly lost them. And at this time of year such articles are at least partially out of date as soon as they are published, what with injuries, cuts, and new signings. So this will be an opportunity to talk about the new guys, at least if they’ve given any indication there’s reason to talk about them.

I decided to start with the quarterbacks. I decided to do so on Friday and wrote a substantial amount of stuff. I have since discovered that the stuff I wrote about Dustin Vaughan is moot, because he broke his thumb in the game Thursday night. This would perhaps explain the inaccuracy of his final few passes, the ones he managed to get off when he wasn’t being sacked. This is particularly ironic in view of the fact that when I wrote my Training Camp Battles article about the quarterbacks I said the following:

The competition for the No. 3 quarterback appears to be between 11-year veteran Bruce Gradkowski, (at least it’s 11 years if you count last year, when he was on IR) and newcomer Dustin Vaughan. Vaughan’s NFL experience is basically zero, although he was in the Cowboy’s training camp last year and on the Bill’s practice squad for a week or so during the 2015 season, but that’s it. That’s pretty youthful. This battle is particularly interesting because in theory either of these guys could also depose Landry Jones for the No. 2 spot.

So the guy I thought might beat out Gradkowski because of injuries is now injured himself, and the Steelers have signed a new quarterback. So let’s take a look at him briefly, despite the fact that I couldn’t “scout” him at all, at least not in the Steelers/Eagles game. His name is Bryn Renner, and he is possibly looking to compete with Ross Ventrone for the title of Most Cut from NFL Rosters. (Ventrone, in case you’ve missed it, was injured in the first preseason game and the Steelers have reached an injury settlement with him. So I suppose he wasn’t exactly cut…)

Renner played at North Carolina State and was highly decorated in college. Mike Mayock supposedly said he was “polished” and he wouldn’t be surprised if he was a first-round pick in the 2014 draft. That was before he was injured and missed a big chunk of his senior season. He was, in fact, undrafted, and was picked up by the Broncos, who cut him after training camp. He then played Arena football. The Ravens picked him up in January of 2015, and then cut him and picked him up twice more. The final cut was in favor of Ryan Mallet, and Steeler Nation perhaps wishes it had been Renner playing at that dreadful game in Baltimore.

But that’s not all. He’s been signed and cut by both the Titans and Chargers since last December. So I’m guessing he has honed his packing skills to a science at this point. Whether his quarterback skills are also honed remains to be seen. He was cut in May by San Diego and hasn’t played anywhere else, so there’s no preseason tape to watch.

So we now have five quarterbacks on the roster. Two of them are non-functional, one of them is a complete unknown, one of them is future Hall of Famer, and then there’s Landry Jones. So let’s talk about his game vs. the Eagles.

There are some things to remember as we look at the otherwise hideous line for the evening:

  1. He was playing with what was basically the second team, against what was the Eagles’ first team.

Wait, you might say. He had the first-team offensive line. Well, sort of. Marcus Gilbert wasn’t playing again, so Ryan Harris was at right tackle. Maurkice Pouncey only played most of the first quarter, and then was replaced by Cody Wallace. Wallace was injured at some point, and the back-up center was inserted. (That would be the mysteriously-named Valerian Ume-Ezeoke.) Ume-Ezeoke was injured (he was waived/injured today to make room for the new quarterback) and I’m not sure who was playing center after that. It wasn’t Chris Hubbard, because he was busy inviting the second-or-third-team Eagles defensive end to sack Dustin Vaughan. (One of those sacks occurred less than two seconds after the ball was snapped.) As I think about it it was almost certainly B.J. Finney.

2. There was only one three-and-out in the first half.

Okay, I made a snarky remark in my game recap to the effect that the Eagles’ defense didn’t need to force three-and-outs, because they just intercepted the ball instead. And while this is true, if you look at the interceptions, one was a bit of a fluke. A pass Cobi Hamilton maybe should have caught in the end zone was instead knocked away by him, and a defender caught the deflection. This is not a case of what Landry has been known for in the past—completing a lot of passes to the guy in the wrong colored jersey. One of them was probably on Sammie Coates, who, it is speculated, ran the wrong route, leaving the defender in position to get the ball. (That was the pick six.) One of them was the result of an underthrown ball. The underthrown ball was the result of Jesse James not blocking his man, who knocked Jones’ arm as he was throwing. Even the fourth one isn’t entirely clear.

3. Generally speaking, Jones looked much more decisive, and the Steelers engineered some good drives in the first half. It was just rather hideous bad luck that none of them resulted in points.

Since posting the article I have discovered there is another consideration:

4. He’s still dealing with the ankle injury he got a few weeks ago in camp. So I guess my statement should be that the Steelers have five quarterbacks, two of whom are currently non-functional, one of whom is currently in need of repairs, one of whom is an unknown quantity, and one of whom is a future hall of gamer.

Do I think Landry Jones is the next coming of Dan Marino? Well, no. But I think he can probably do a decent job of managing a game or two for the Steelers should Ben have a short-term injury. If he has a long-term one, we’re screwed, and there’s no getting around it.

to be continued, as I have the time and stamina…


One comment

  • I think that you can’t emphasize enough the advantage the Steelers have with how they conduct their preseason games. Some teams have to use the time to build a truly competitive unit. Some teams have to build the confidence of their players and teach them how to win. Some, like the Rams, have to sell the team to their market in order to get support from the fans. When was the last time the Steelers had to do any of these things? Certainly not during Tomlin’s tenure. Pittsburgh’s challenges are a little more subtle and refined, and at this point can be summarized as the following: get out of August healthy (key and frontline players). Integrate newcomers into the system. Create development and competitive opportunities for depth in the short term and laying the foundation for sustained excellence in the future.

    Fans, understandably, want to see a dominant performance every time the team takes the field, and like the examples cited by Rebecca with music, some organizations have no choice but to try. But those who are more targeted to championship performance and have the experience think differently. I don’t follow regular season hockey but I understand the Penguins sucked last December. Except to stay in striking distance, does anyone care what the Pirates do prior to the All Star break? Because of the shorter schedule the NFL has a smaller margin of error, but August/September football matters a lot less than December football.

    The Cincinnati Bengals began last season 8-0

    Ha, Ha!


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