Well, the Steelers certainly will not like how their final preseason game ended. Even as the team sat most of their regulars, most of the backups and guys who could have potential roles on the team fumbled and stumbled their way to the finish line. Most of the key position battles looked like the Steelers would end up choosing between the best of two questionable players rather than someone actively stepping out and taking their roster spot. So, who were the winners and losers from the Steelers loss to the Panthers?
Winner: James Pierre
This is where the Steelers really needed a strong showing, and they got it. James Pierre was arguably the best player on either side of the football. The good news is the Steelers seemingly have a legitimate third cornerback option to run their nickel defense. Cam Sutton will kick inside, and that is okay.
Pierre’s physicality has been a joy to watch as he grows into a role. He was everywhere and made a number of key run stops on screens or getting willingly involved. In coverage, not much was to be seen or heard from the second-year product out of Florida Atlantic. However, the reason nothing was heard from Pierre is simply that no one was open to his side. With a talented Panthers receiving corps, that can only mean good things. He is a huge winner from not just Friday’s game, but the entire preseason.
Loser: Dwayne Haskins
There are a lot of ways to break down how Dwayne Haskins looked on Friday night. However, Mike Tomlin probably put it best, in a very succinct manner.
“Like the rest of us I didn’t think it was enough varsity work from him,” Tomlin said. “If it wasn’t the type of performance he wanted or we wanted such is life.”
There is plenty where that came from. Haskins seemed tentative to push the ball down the field. His lower body mechanics came back to truly haunt in on more than a few throws throughout the night. More importantly, Haskins just could not move the ball against what Tomlin would refer to as varsity competition. By not doing so, he likely lost any chance he had at the backup quarterback job.
That does not mean Haskins is a complete failure and all hope is not lost yet for the Ohio State product, but this was not an encouraging performance at all for Haskins. His interception that ricocheted off the hands of Derek Watt was an encapsulation of the entire night of struggles. The only hope is that he can come back in 2022 and not have repeat performances such as this.
Winner: Jamir Jones
There may not have been one player that has done more than Jamir Jones to earn a 53-man roster spot throughout the preseason. Okay, the sacks and run stops are one thing. Ola Adeniyi and Tuzar Skipper have done that in the past and made the squad on squads with thinner outside linebacker rooms. For Jones, simply showing out defensively was not going to be enough.
However, with at least two more special teams tackles on Friday, Jones has done more than prove he is a potential force defensively. Jones proved to everyone that he was a guy who could truly be an asset to Danny Smith on special teams. That is how a player can work their way onto the roster. For Jones, he might have just usurped Cassius Marsh as a result.
Loser: Mathew Sexton
There are a lot of things to break down about the performance of Mathew Sexton throughout the preseason. The big returns were sparkplugs for the Steelers that either gave them momentum or continued carrying momentum to them. However, he was the catalyst that allowed the Panthers to break through on Friday. It was a performance that very likely cost Sexton any chance of a roster spot.
With a muffed punt that was recovered by the Panthers and then set up a touchdown being the big notable from the game for Sexton, another fumble did absolutely nothing to help his favors. Ray-Ray McCloud had a pretty putrid night, too, but the night Sexton had likely secured McCloud his roster spot. That is what it is and Sexton was not up to par. Sexton had his chance, but he, unfortunately, could not capitalize on it.
Okay, yes, there was whatever the botched extra point at the end of the game was from Chris Boswell and Pressley Harvin, but overall, the specialists looked sharped. In fact, the Steelers specialists were undoubtedly their best players from the game. Harvin and Jordan Berry continued an exceptional punting battle that saw them both put up consistently strong punts. Harvin seems to have the lead on that as it stands now, but Berry has likely landed himself a job with another team.
Boswell nailed his field goal and looks to be the steady guy that Pittsburgh has come to know as reliable over the last few years. Not to be forgotten in this fray is long snapper Christian Kuntz. Kuntz got all of the snaps with Kam Canaday sick and thus out on Friday. He was rock solid, and Kuntz may have just earned himself a roster spot as a result. Overall, it was a great night to be the specialist.
Loser: Robert Spillane
The bad has absolutely gotten worse for Robert Spillane. Coming into the season as the presumed starter, Spillane somehow has fumbled his way all the way down the depth chart. At this point, he looks like he may not even be an adequate depth piece. Marcus Allen, who got injured, looked much better in coverage and while maybe not completely on par in the running game, the drop-off was not that severe.
The Panthers, like most other teams, picked on Spillane in coverage repeatedly. This was not completely a linebackers on wide receivers situation, either. Spillane was getting toasted by running backs routinely. In the modern NFL, linebackers have to be able to cover running backs. Spillane looked like a liability, and continued his awful preseason with no way of going up in sight.