F. Dale Lolley's Sports Column
Defense remains a mystery
Ready or not, here comes the regular season, as defense remains a mystery
PITTSBURGH – Ready or not for the regular season, it is coming for the Steelers.
That might not have been such a bad thing a couple of weeks ago after the Steelers had played their second preseason game, against the Buffalo Bills.
The Steelers’ starting units looked good against the Bills, with Ben Roethlisberger throwing a pair of touchdown passes to finish the first two possessions and the defense looked solid.
Then came the third preseason game – usually the most important because the starters get their most playing time – against Philadelphia.
The Steelers’ starters were dominated in that 31-21 loss and, suddenly, there are a lot of questions among the fanbase about the team’s readiness for the opening of the regular season Sept. 7 against Cleveland.
Apparently, head coach Mike Tomlin felt his team is as ready as it’s going to be.
In Thursday night’s preseason finale against Carolina at Heinz Field, several key starters didn’t play. And many of those who did saw just enough playing time to work up a light sweat.
“There’s going to be a lot of people that are concerned about things (and) happy about a lot of things,” said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, one of the veterans who did not play against the Panthers.
“It’s all about this building and what we have to deal with. It’s for getting the chance to look at things (and) different reads. We move guys around to see where guys could best be fit and it’s the preseason. We’ve stayed healthy and that was the most important thing.”
Staying healthy is important, but it might not be the most important thing about the preseason, especially for a team looking to improve on back-to-back 8-8 seasons.
Fans want to see improvement. They want the starters to dominate. They want the offense to run like a well-oiled machine and the defense to look like an impenetrable brick wall.
It’s not always realistic, but fans want what they want.
The Steelers didn’t provide that this preseason. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t an improved team.
They are younger. And they are faster.
It might, however, take a few weeks before all of that comes together on the football field.
That’s why Roethlisberger will be so critical. With so many new moving parts on this team, particularly on defense, it might take a while before it becomes a finished product. The offense, which averaged nearly 28 points per game in the final eight games last year – a total that would have been good for second in the league if extrapolated over the length of the season – will have to carry the team early in the season.
If linebacker Jarvis Jones turns into the player the Steelers thought he would be when they drafted him in the first round last year, and rookies Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt fill critical roles at inside linebacker and defensive end, respectively, the defense should improve. All three have shown potential throughout the preseason.
Jones had sack in limited playing time against the New York Giants in the first preseason game but did little until making several plays against the Panthers.
Shazier was all over the field against the Bills in his first preseason action, but hasn’t been nearly as active since that game.
And the Steelers were so unsure what they’d get out of Tuitt that they re-signed veteran starting defensive end Brett Keisel last week.
There’s promise among those three. But they need to do it consistently.
That’s what we did not see in this preseason. And that’s the great unknown for the Steelers heading into the regular season opener.
F. Dale Lolley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.