Let’s take a look at the Steelers stock report after their lackluster 14-3 loss to the Minnesota Vikings Sunday night.
***Heading into Sunday night’s game, Dri Archer was expected to get plenty of work both in the return game and as a running back. With Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams and Josh Harris not playing, there would be plenty of chances for Archer to prove his critics wrong after a dismal rookie season.
Archer showed flashes of what the Steelers hoped to get from the diminutive back after selecting him in the third round last season. Utilized in both in the run and pass, Archer would rush for 24 yards on six carries and also catch six passes for an additional 33 yards. Archer looked much more assertive with the ball in his hands, highlighted by a 15-yard gain on a draw play where he used his speed to blast through the hole.
Archer did bobble a punt late in the first half, but had a solid 34-yard kickoff return also.
***After the first week of training camp, inside linebacker Jordan Zumwalt was off to a poor start. Dealing with some early bumps and bruises, and not looking particularly sharp in a unit that is loaded with talented veterans, Zumwalt needed to pick it up in a hurry if he wanted to make the 53-man roster for a second consecutive season.
Zumwalt followed up a strong week of camp this week with a impressive performance against the Vikings. Playing mainly in the second half, Zumwalt had three tackles and was also strong on special teams. His aggressive, confident play on both units last night should help keep him in the mix for a roster spot as long as he keeps the momentum going.
***Though a case could be made for wide receiver Shakim Phillips after a strong performance Sunday night, he was just beat out by offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva. Though at a position where you rarely get noticed until you make a mistake, Villanueva made a strong case to not only lock up a roster spot, but to be the Steelers swing tackle this season.
Listed as Marcus Gilbert’s backup at right tackle, Villanueva actually played on the left side, and was consistently outstanding in pass protection all night long. Signed by the Steelers initially as a defensive lineman, Villanueva has quickly developed into a solid tackle under the tutelage of offensive line coach Mike Munchak. If he continues to develop and play at the level he did last night, he may easily surpass Mike Adams as the primary backup at both tackle positions.
***Among the many disappointments from a team standpoint last night, no individual player struggled more than rookie tight end Jesse James. The former Penn State standout and Glassport native seemingly could do nothing right throughout the game, dropping a sure touchdown in the first half, missing blocks along the way and looking lost on special teams. The fifth-round pick could not have had a rougher debut, but to be fair, it’s one game.
James has had a relatively strong showing at Latrobe so all is not lost, but he needs to overcome Sunday night’s nightmare quickly if he expects to have a shot at backing up Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth this season.
***Along with Archer, third-year quarterback Landry Jones was the player with the most to prove after two lackluster years as a Steeler. Jones did little with that opportunity last night, throwing for a mere 135 yards while completing only 16 of 32 passes. To be fair, the wide receiver group was lacking their top player players at the position, but Jones still showed very little improvement in accuracy, missing a wide open Sammie Coates for a touchdown.
Jones also leaned on the short passing game and safe options far too often throughout, making his 50 percent completion percentage all the more alarming. Time is running out for Jones to prove he’s a viable backup QB in the NFL. When will the Steelers consider other options for depth? The time may be at hand.
***Special teams coach Danny Smith does not have a on field role with the Steelers, obviously, and preseason special teams performances can be a crap shoot due to limited practice time and more often than not, guys you may have never heard handling the duties.
However, Smith’s stock is down not just because the Steelers special teams unit was far from special but due to the ACL tear that will end place kicker Shaun Suisham’s season before it even began.
Why am I being specifically hard on Smith?
At practice at Latrobe on Wednesday, I could not help but notice Suisham being used as a gunner on punt coverage. It struck me as odd at the time, and it came back into my mind when Suisham was inexplicably getting involved in trying to make a tackle in a preseason game. We do what we are coached to do, and watching Smith have Suisham play the role of gunner might have been enough to make him forget that there is absolutely no reason to be getting involved in kick coverage.
Sure, you can blame Mike Tomlin for this (some will for the traffic on the Parkway West too) but I blame not only Suisham for not using more common sense, but Smith for having Suisham participate in that charade earlier this week.