Mike Tomlin and company had to be pretty pleased with the debut of rookie inside linebacker Devin Bush in Friday night's 30-28 preseason opening win over the Buccaneers at Heinz Field.
Bush showed off his range, making plays at all three levels while recording 10 tackles in just two quarters of football. More importantly, he was assignment sound, not only being where he was supposed to be, but making sure the guys around him were, as well.
"It wasn't too big for him," Tomlin said. "He handled the communication responsibilities associated with his job. He was alert and those were good signs."
Bruce Arians, the Bucs' head coach and former Steelers offensive coordinator, was equally pleased with his rookie inside linebacker Devin White. White was the fifth-overall pick in this draft, while Bush was the 10th.
"For Devin (White) — size, strength, speed and maturity. Everything you look for to be the leader of your defense," Arians said while noting he didn't necessarily notice Bush on the field.
Arians must not have been paying attention when his offense was on the field. Bush had 10 tackles. White had one, an assist.
White, for example, was the main culprit in a third-and-20 conversion in the second quarter. Josh Dobbs pump-faked to Xavier Grimble underneath and White froze just long enough for James Washington to get behind him.
Bush, meanwhile, was doing things such as making this fourth-down stop.
Not getting manipulated by a QB to go after an underneath receiver on third-and-long is just one little thing rookies learn. Bush had his moments when he looked like a rookie as well, but he was better in this game than White.
That's not to say Bush is going to be a better player than White. One game does not a career make. But based off this one game, advantage Bush.
• Not only did Bush play well, but fellow inside linebackers Tyler Matakevich, Robert Spillane and Ulysees Gilbert also made big plays.
Matakevich had a sack that led to a fumble and turnover for the Steelers in the second quarter. His spot is assured on the roster.
A first-year player, Spillane, meanwhile, had three tackles on defense and was credited for two passes defended on the final stats, though he actually broke up three passes. He also had a special teams tackle that led to a fumble -- though the officials didn't see the fumble and it was not recorded, even though Tomlin challenged the play and the ball was obviously out.
Gilbert, a sixth-round draft pick, had been overshadowed by Bush. But he recorded three tackles, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and four quarterback hurries.
Veteran Vince Williams was one of the players held out of this game, while free agent pickup Mark Barron had three tackles, including one for a loss, in limited action.
The position was a clear weakness for the Steelers in 2018. This season, the Steelers might wind up cutting a guy who ends up playing somewhere else in the league.
• James Washington was excellent in this one. He caught a 43-yard bomb on the Steelers' first pass of the game that would have been a touchdown had Dobbs not underthrown him a bit. That came against former first-round draft pick Vernon Hargreaves.
And he added three more catches -- including a 22-yard catch on third-and-21 -- finishing with 84 yards and a touchdown in limited action.
Washington did similar things in last year's preseason. But you can just see his confidence this season is just in a completely different place.
"He's more confident, he's worked hard to change his body, losing some weight and you can see it in the way he's playing. He's more explosive," quarterback Mason Rudolph said.
Washington is a 4.5-guy, but he doesn't look it when he's running free in or behind a secondary.
• Speaking of Rudolph, he, Josh Dobbs and Devlin Hodges all played well in this game.
Rudolph's accuracy and command of the pocket were on display. He bought time with his feet in the pocket, especially on his touchdown throw to rookie tight end Zach Gentry.
It was just a three-yard touchdown pass, but his footwork allowed for the time needed for Gentry to uncover.
And then there was this throw to Washington on a perfectly placed back-shoulder throw for a touchdown.
Dobbs didn't quite display the accuracy of Rudolph or even Hodges, but what he does have is the ability to run and break contain, as he did twice on the Steelers' second possession. As mentioned, he also made a nice pump fake that manipulated White to help convert a third-and-long.
If this was your first look at Hodges, a record-setting rookie quarterback from Samford, you had to come away impressed with his poise in the pocket and ability to deliver the ball, as well. He did have a delay of game called against him, but that's something to be expected with a young QB learning to call plays and huddle for the first time.
None of what happened in this game likely changed the pecking order with the quarterbacks behind Ben Roethlisberger, but there are three more preseason games remaining.
Rudolph will get his chance to start next weekend against the Chiefs.
• Chris Boswell's three made kicks continued what he has been doing at training camp. He's been really sharp.
And his leg looks really strong, way stronger than that of rookie Matthew Wright.
It's still too early to say Boswell is over his horrible 2018 season. But Friday night's game was certainly a big step in the right direction.
• That's a lot of the good. There were some other things, to be sure, but one of the ugliest things was the play of what was largely the backup offensive line.
Chuks Okorafor, who has been good at camp, had his hands full -- literally in some cases -- against the Bucs. He drew a couple of holding penalties and didn't look nearly as good at left tackle.
The group as a whole struggled opening lanes for the running backs. The Bucs are going to be an aggressive, blitzing defense, but no more so than, say, the Ravens.
The Steelers finished with 108 yards rushing on 25 carries, but Dobbs had 44 of that on two scrambles.
That said, Maurice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Alejandro Villanueva and Ramon Foster didn't play in this one. The only starter in there was Matt Feiler. And he was playing guard, not his right tackle spot.
Unless things go amazingly bad, there won't be any instance during the season where the Steelers will have four backups on the field together. Individually, they are better than they were as a group.
• Four cornerbacks -- Steven Nelson, Joe Haden, Artie Burns and Brian Allen -- didn't play in this game because of injuries or a coaching decision. That meant rookie Justin Layne, a third-round draft pick, had to start and play a lot.
Layne also missed practice Wednesday with an undisclosed injury, but he had to suck it up and play in this game.
Layne finished the game second on the team with seven tackles, which is never a good thing for a cornerback. And he missed a couple of tackles, as well.
But the idea was never for Layne to be on the field during the regular season -- unless it is on special teams. He was drafted as a developmental corner. He's got good size to go along with decent speed.
Layne will be better moving forward for the experience of fighting through what he did Friday night.
• P.J. Locke didn't do anything to help his cause to make this team as a reserve safety.
The undrafted rookie from Texas made a couple of selfish plays late that nearly cost the Steelers this game. First came a play on which, with the Steelers leading 30-22 and less than two minutes remaining, he went for an interception instead of simply tackling the catch in bounds to keep the clock running. Spencer Schnell turned that into a 30-yard gain to the Pittsburgh 22.
On the next play, Gilbert forced a fumble and Locke was in position to fall on the ball. Instead, he tried to scoop up the loose ball and return it for a score.
He failed to come up with the ball and Tampa Bay recovered. That allowed the Bucs to keep possession.
Those are selfish plays, not team plays. And they weren't the right things to do in those situations. Don't think the coaching staff didn't notice that.
• Don't be surprised if the Steelers make a move to acquire another tight end soon. Christian Scotland-Williamson tweaked a hamstring in this game. And then Kevin Rader, a first-year tight end who had been pushing for a spot, lost a late fumble.
Gentry made a couple of plays in the passing game, but he's still a work in progress.
This is a team that really needs a true No. 2 tight end.
• Ten penalties is too many. Sure, the Bucs had 14, giving this game 24 total, but it was a sloppy game in that regard.
As previously mentioned, the Steelers didn't play a lot of regulars, so perhaps the big number of penalties was to be expected. But it's definitely something the coaching staff won't be happy about.
To continue reading, log into your account: