In preparation for Thursday’s Week 2 preseason matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has already opted to sit his leading offensive stars for the second straight game and continues to deal with injuries that have opened up opportunities for several young players on both sides of the ball.
Pittsburgh is coming off a 30-17 loss to the Detroit Lions, who netted 379 total offensive yards and fired off 17 second-half points while the Steelers offense sputtered for 187 yards largely against the Lions second and third-string defense.
But Tomlin, entering his 10th season at the helm, announced Tuesday that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running backs Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, and receiver Antonio Brown will continue to sit out. Bell is currently awaiting the league’s decision on his appeal of a suspension for a missed drug test.
“These are guys I choose not to play,” Tomlin told reporters. “That is my decision. We will see where we are next week with those guys.
“I know what Ben is capable of. I have worked with him for a decade now. He showed up in tremendous condition. He has performed well. He is a veteran. What is required of him to be ready to play might be different than others. My job is to give everybody what it is they need to be ready to go. I just believe the reps are better served given to guys like Landry (Jones) and Dustin (Vaughan). It won’t hurt him by not getting them.”
Jones and Vaughn, an undrafted free agent who spent the last two seasons between the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills, will likely split even more snaps against the Eagles after veteran Bruce Gradkowski went down with a left hamstring injury in the loss to Detroit.
Considering the Steelers offensive output compared to the defense’s last season, Tomlin’s trying to find the proper blend up front and in the defensive backfield. Pittsburgh was fourth in points scored and third in total yards a year ago, while the pass defense toiled near the bottom third of the league for the second straight season and finished 30th in yards and 19th in points allowed.
That gave Pittsburgh’s front office reason enough to spend a number of high draft picks on the secondary the last two years, but Tomlin and second-year defensive coordinator Kevin Butler may miss 2015 first-round pick Senquez Golson for the entire season yet again. Having missed all of his rookie year due to a torn labrum in his shoulder, the former Ole Miss standout underwent surgery for a Lisfranc foot injury over a week ago and could miss upwards of four months, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.
But the potentially lengthy loss of Golson may help rookie cornerback and first-round pick Artie Burns see even more reps in preseason should his own injury heal. Previously with the Miami Hurricanes, Burns suffered a quad injury the first week of training camp but returned Monday as a limited participant.
“When we have practice, I’m standing back envisioning myself covering a receiver in that coverage, trying to read my keys, see what I got to do,” Burns told The Gazette. “I’m kind of behind but I can always catch up with extra work.”
With Golson and Burns down, second-round draft pick and safety Sean Davis was elevated to first-team cornerback against the Lions and while he struggled initially he rounded into form. The 6-foot-1, 201-pound Maryland product allowed a huge 30-yard gain after missing a tackle on the opening drive and received a 15-yard penalty but settled down to shut down a screen pass in the red zone that might’ve led to another Detroit touchdown.
“The more I was out there, the more comfortable I got,” Davis said after the game. “I got the jitters out early. Once I got calm and relaxed I played my football.
Over on the defensive frontline, a unit that last year produced the league’s third-best pass rush with 48 sacks, a number of rookie linebackers and tackles are fighting for jobs on the 53-man roster.
While fourth-round draft pick and outside linebacker out of Washington Travis Feeney didn’t see any action against the Lions, it’s possible given his considerable talent and athletic ability that Tomlin affords him some time this week. Feeney was considered a first-round talent but several shoulder surgeries during his time with the Huskies caused him to drop in the draft.
However, seventh-round selection and inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich, coming out of Temple, recorded two tackles in his NFL debut. He’s currently behind recently signed linebacker Steven Johnson and starter Ryan Shazier on the depth chart.
At nose tackle, third-round pick Javon Hargrave recorded one tackle in Week 1 as he battles Devaunte Sigler, who was kicked off of Auburn’s squad but landed at FCS school Jacksonville state and was signed by Pittsburgh in May.