Pittsburgh and Carolina took slightly differing approaches to this last preseason game with the Steelers making this a Landry Jones “Tour De Force”; allowing their third string rookie to play every offensive snap. Conversely the Panthers pulled second choice signal caller, Derek Anderson, midway to make way for Jimmy Clausen.
Anderson played particularly well in conjunction with Ted Ginn, whose top end speed was far too much for the Steelers second string (5 of 6 targets, 149 yards and two touchdowns) and he left with 4:40 to go in the second.
As we’ll see later, Jones may well have wished he was pulled earlier too but regardless both coaching staffs should have seen what they needed with decent displays in key areas solidifying certain player’s positions with others allowing for an easier exit interview.
Pittsburgh – Three Performances of Note
A Game of Two Halves
As I alluded to in the introduction Steelers rookie QB, Landry Jones (-0.9) started well but then struggled as the game went on. With Ben Roethlisberger’s workload confined to media sideline interviews and little to be learned from playing Bruce Gradkowski, Jones was behind center for all 66 offensive plays. In the first half that equated to a very creditable un-normalized grade of +2.5 compared to a far less encouraging -2.0 in the third and fourth quarters.
On the positive side a couple of plays stood out. Although it was dropped by Markus Wheaton, the deep crossing route he hit with Greg Hardy bearing down him was a fine throw (1st Qtr 12:03). In a different vein, after being flushed, to find Derek Moye while on the run, with such a small target window to aim at really made me sit up.
It was later that he succumbed to a three interception glut. The last of which can be ignored because of his receiver, Justin Brown, falling over but the former two picks were much more concerning. On the first he was almost baited into the throw by Josh Norman who tracked the receiver on his crossing route and with the second the throw was so off-target it initially had everyone looking for missed route assignments.
Making the Team (Or At Least Someone Else’s)
In a game where performance is far more valuable than results a couple of the Steelers linebackers stood out for me as guys playing hard and doing whatever they could to make the team. They only entered the game with 2:09 left in the first half but both LOLB, Alan Baxter (+2.6) and ILB, Vince Williams (+1.1) did themselves no harm at all.
Baxter is a shorter than ideal rookie free agent OLB out of Northern Illinois who has become more productive with each preseason game. His pass rushing grades of +0.2, +0.6, +1.4 and +2.2 reinforce this. In fact, of all those 3-4 OLBs with more than 40 attempts to get to the QB, his 10 disruptions rates him as the fourth most productive.
A sixth round selection, Williams has played at least 20 snaps in every game so far and graded positively on each occasion and, overall, in each facet of play. First and foremost though he’s a quality run defender and in this game made five tackles, three of which were stops including his athletic TD saving tackle with 13:33 left in the fourth.
Losing Their Way
The man with the name no one will forget, Da-mon Cromartie-Smith (-2.3), unfortunately also made a number of plays no one will likely forget soon either. He’s had a quiet but generally solid preseason to date but that may have all changed on Thursday night.
Playing just under 75% of the defensive snaps, on one and possibly two deep throws, he failed to get over the top and allowed a touchdown(s) either solely or in conjunction with RCB, Curtis Brown. Now in complete fairness, without the clarity that All-22 footage brings, he may have a lot, some or none of the responsibility for Ted Ginn’s first score (1st Qtr 12:10) but somehow he ends up in a no-man’s land so close to the RILB’s zone you feel it must be the former. With the release that Brown allows he’s certainly expecting help deep, but whether that is from Robert Golden or Cromartie-Smith is at least debatable.
His work on the second touchdown is far more categorical. By the time Brown, who is in man coverage, is skinned alive by Ginn he is in no position at all to offer help and is left with the simple option of tracking the panther into the end zone.
Carolina – Three Performances of Note
Figuring Six from Nine
How many receivers will the Panthers keep? I’ll say six but just how they will align is a harder question to answer (not that I got the first one right anyways). Whatever the number at least there is a decent competition for the places behind Steve Smith.
As mentioned Ted Ginn (+2.6) did everything and more to move up the depth chart with David Gettis having done well and Armanti Edwards having resurfaced. The last of those coming through was the guy many initially expected to seize the role as the third wideout; Domenik Hixon (+1.2). A dodgy hamstring held him out until now but 15 snaps was all it took to show he belonged as in 10 routes he was targeted four times and pulled in three for 44 yards. The fact that he was pulled with less than two minutes gone in the second suggests all is well for the ex-Giant.
Too Little Too Late?
As we’ve mentioned many times, the Panthers have stunk in the defensive interior for a number of years but at least that seems to have been addressed with both their rookie defensive tackles playing very well. That leaves the position of 2011 third round pick, Sione Fua (+3.1) very much up in the air. A grade of -7.4 (on just over 400 snaps) in his rookie year was poor, but last year things got worse and -12.4 in 250 snaps seemed like a stamp on his ticket out of town.
Now that may well still happen but at least he can say he made a fight of it. Playing 71% of snaps he was generally too much for the Steelers second string offensive line to handle and he generated five hurries of Landry Jones as well as beating every guard Pittsburgh matched him up over.
It’s possibly the quality of opposition or maybe just the ignominy of still playing deep in the fourth quarter of the final preseason game but plays like he made with 1:34 left in the third (getting quickly outside the left guard, shallowing the angle and taking down Felix Jones for a one yard gain) were previously in very short supply.
I’m not much convinced by the Panthers starters anyway but if SS, Haruki Nakamura (-2.3) is forced to play in a regular season game, it has to be a better performance than this.
As if missing two tackles on running backs wasn’t enough he also lost outside contain on an end around and was blocked inside so easily on another play (by WR Markus Wheaton of all people) it made you wonder if you should lose the prefix “strong” from safety.
There was one saving grace; his excellent tracking across on a sideline route allowed him to knock down a pass intended for Wheaton and saved a substantial gain.
– It was a strange game for Markus Wheaton. He got himself into position to make a lot of plays without actually making that many. In this case my gut says to take it as a good sign but he’s got to do a better job than converting seven targets into two receptions and 25 yards (one drop).
– I know Steeler fans think we have an agenda which isn’t favorable to Ziggy Hood but could you just watch the first offensive play from Carolina and tell me what a man of his physical talent is doing there please?
– Despite his four preseason interceptions and two passes defensed does Josh Norman playing 65 of 66 snaps say the Panthers like him or not? For what it’s worth our overall coverage grade was +4.7 and QBs throwing at him rated only 31.7 (Second among corners with over 100 preseason snaps).
PFF Game Ball
I suspect this may be the one and only time I do this for non-special teams related work but Ted Ginn gets my final game ball of the preseason.
Follow Neil on Twitter: @PFF_Neil