Steelers

Kovacevic: What if long-dreaded window is actually opening? ☕

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James Washington tries to escape the Chiefs' Juan Thornhill Saturday night at Heinz Field. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

"I think we're a little closer to being who we need to be, and that's a team on the rise. Now, it's just got to stay an incline. It's got to keep going up."

As if one couldn't love James Conner any more.

He stood at his stall late Saturday night surrounded by cameras and microphones, this after maybe the most nondescript sporting event conducted within city limits in the calendar year -- the Steelers' 17-7 out-slogging of the Chiefs in their second preseason game -- and somehow, within that single sentence, he'd given shape to that big, blah blob we'd all just witnessed.

Because I'll be damned if he wasn't right: The Steelers just might be a team on the rise.

It's weird to think of them that way, though, isn't it?

I mean, how long has it felt like the window was slamming down on the franchise's fingers, forever attached to Ben Roethlisberger's inconsistent commitment to keep playing? Or Antonio Brown's insanity? Or Le'Veon Bell's idiocy? Or, infinitely more serious, Ryan Shazier's injury?

Look, not much will matter until the football flies in Foxborough. I get that. But good luck, after what I've seen all summer long, trying to sell me that all of those scripts haven't already flipped in one form or another: Ben now speaks openly of sticking for another three years. AB's frozen feet and Great Gazoo helmets are now the Raiders' headaches. Le'Veon's next rap will challenge him to rhyme 'least' with 'AFC East.' And Shazier, again infinitely more serious, is out on the field again, throwing balls during drills, as he was on this afternoon, and horsing around with his presumed replacement, Devin Bush, as I watched those two having a blast in the locker room much later.

That's to say nothing of this team, the core of which had been unconscionably maligned for months in the national media, somehow not giving rise to a single negative headline since AB's hot air was ballooned out to the Bay.

And on top of that, responding as beautifully as they have to the terrible loss of Darryl Drake.

As James Washington observed after this game, "It was a tough week for us. But we got through it together."

The wide receivers, he meant specifically. But he could have been speaking for any of them. There were no sides of the ball, no positional cliques in this healing, from what those of us on the outside could see and hear. There were tears, there were hugs, there was Mike Tomlin with this eloquent explanation for bringing in grief counselors -- "It’s been said that counseling is not for the weak but for the wise," he'd say in Latrobe -- and there were hands to help up a friend when he was down:

[caption id="attachment_873807" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, Pa., Aug. 15, 2019. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

Asked what this otherwise meaningless outcome meant for the wide receivers, Washington, visibly emotional, answered: "It means a lot. Coach Drake's watching us right now. He's up there critiquing my game right now."

____________________

The game stunk. The whole night did, really. Thunderstorms and lightning beyond Mount Washington delayed kickoff by 55 minutes, and the first nine minutes that followed saw each team fumble twice.

At the same time, linings poked through the clouds. And most of those, true to Conner's assessment, came from players legitimately on the rise.

Washington, passionate enough about a second-year breakthrough that he religiously adhered to Drake's admonition to drop 15 pounds and accent his athleticism, might have been the top performer on either side. He had four catches for 78 yards, making the most of five targets ...

... but he also delivered two jarring blocks to spring healthy runs, not least of which was Jaylen Samuels' casual 14-yard touchdown around left end:

I asked Washington about the pride he clearly takes in that trait, and he replied, "I'm just trying to get better every day. At everything."

I broached the same subject with Ramon Foster and, predictably, he was far more colorful.

"You know what's huge in the run game?" the big man asked me, even though he knew I knew the answer.

"It's receiver blocking," he proceeded as I mouthed along. I'd heard it a million times. And at the next stall, an overhearing Alejandro Villanueva nodded emphatically.

"If you've got guys willing to do that," Foster continued, "then those 5-yard gains become 15, 20 ... 50. Because of receiver blocking. That is huge."

OK, but what about Washington specifically?

"You can talk about him, and that's all good. But what about the young guy, Diontae?"

Diontae Johnson, the third-round pick, had three catches for 46 yards and a crisp, controlled adjustment on his 24-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, plus another touchdown catch that was absurdly disallowed for offensive pass interference.

"That kid's a blocker, too," Foster went on. "We've had a lot of receivers throw their hand into the pile. These kids ... we notice it. We've been noticing it all through camp now. There's a tremendous energy they're bringing."

Not just the receivers. The running backs, too. Conner's only 24, it's easy to forget because of all the years we watched him with Pitt. Samuels is 23. Benny Snell's 21. They're relative children in the NFL.

No one broke a bigger run than Samuels' touchdown, but Conner carried six times for 28 yards, Samuels four times for 26 yards, and Snell had a disappointing seven carries for 16 yards before leaving with a groin injury. Regardless, it was telling that Tomlin and Randy Fichtner scripted out the first half in a way that, even amid a backup-quarterback duel, stuck mostly to the ground. It'll be a big part of the Steelers "being who we need to be."

Reminder: Conner was an upgrade over Bell in every conceivable capacity. Bell's departure isn't an obstacle to overcome. It's already well back on course.

The difference now is that he'll have reliable support in Samuels, who spread his own wings late last season. And befitting his personality, he doesn't exactly sound put off by that.

"Whoever's number gets called," Conner said, "I'm behind them."

A lot of this, maybe even more, is happening on defense.

Remember what Terrell Edmunds told me a couple weeks ago was his top priority?

“Gotta get the ball.”

Like this:

Credit Artie Burns for the initial hit that slowed a Carlos Hyde rush on the Chiefs' second drive, but that was Edmunds' right fist punching the ball out from behind for a fumble. If he's looking to wrap and tackle, that's what he'll have. If he's looking for the ball ...

"I've gotta get the ball," he repeated for me after the game. "That felt good. But it wasn't just me."

It wasn't. Sean Davis, who's hardly topped out at age 25, pounced on that loose ball after a season of seldom making the slightest contact with one. Mike Hilton and Marcus Allen also forced fumbles. Overall, too, the secondary acquitted itself well. I'm not sure what to make of Patrick Mahomes, the NFL's heir-apparent generational quarterback, going 2 of 5 for 11 yards, though it's probably nothing. Still, he didn't see many open targets downfield in his cameo, and that's better than the alternative.

Bush, the 10-tackle star of the preseason opener, was rested by Tomlin because a shoulder had bugged through the week's practices, but it was the first-round outside linebackers' turn to take top defensive billing. That's become expected of T.J. Watt, still only 24, but it hasn't of Bud Dupree, now 26 and in danger of shedding his 'potential' label despite what Watt accurately describes as "freakish" physical talent.

Is it fair to suggest that these two, as a duo, haven't peaked?

T.J. was T.J., disrupting all over the place, and Bud had one of his better NFL events with two sacks and a pass batted away. The latter had Watt so pumped that he strode behind Dupree pumping his fist as if the breakup had been his own.

"We want to be special players, both of us. And I think we can," Watt replied when I brought that up. "As outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense, we're expected to set the tone for splash plays. We can affect the game in every way. So being able to see all the hard work we've put in paying off tonight ... I feel like we were around the quarterback a lot. We smelled blood in the water."

I laughed. He didn't.

"This is good," he finished. "But it's just the beginning."

Feels that way.

____________________

Watt's celebration for Dupree was one of many such scenes.

Roethlisberger was first to the sideline each time Mason Rudolph or Josh Dobbs strode off. Neither was sharp, for any backup-quarterback-duel obsessors, but they never had to wonder if the starter was invested.

When Diontae Spencer slipped through not one but two seams for a 38-yard punt return, a helmetless Conner, long since out of the game, sprinted along the white paint behind him, gesturing and shouting the whole way.

When I approached Edmunds to talk about his forced fumble, we finished up, and he pointed over toward the stall of the beleaguered Burns and said, "You can talk to Artie next."

All kinds of talking was going on in there. No senseless social media garbage. No divas taking a half-hour to get custom haircuts. No me-me-me.

David DeCastro, one of my sturdiest weathervanes with this sort of thing, worded it this way for me, "It's a team now. A complete team." Then, after a grin, he'd add, "But you know, we have to win football games."

Yep. Top of the incline 'n' at.

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