From the notebook of a sportswriter who wrote two stories after last Friday night’s game, and in retrospect sees them as intertwined:

  • All the Steelers had to do was draft a linebacker last year, because, well, Devin Bush and Ulysees Gilbert. Look at all of the plays those draft picks made in their first preseason game.
  • Just pick ‘em, right?
  • Well, the second story, on the fuel-injection of the second-year players, for a second consecutive year, wouldn’t have been possible had the Steelers reached for a linebacker in the 2018 draft.
  • As mentioned, I’ve written in detail about Bush’s debut and want to move on to other topics today, but let me add that I didn’t expect Bush to be as stout as he was in the middle. In fact, he was more than stout, he was a brick wall at times Friday. I expected more grab and drag from him, but he provided some real thump.
  • Bush bounces bodies backwards.
  • Also remember that the play before Bush and Ola Adeniyi tackled the Tampa Bay RB for a loss on fourth-and-inches, Bush held firm on a tackle just shy of the sticks on third-and-9 as he rodeoed a tight end to the ground.
  • Mark Barron is everything the Steelers wanted last year in Morgan Burnett, and more. And Tyler Matakevich blew up a bunch of stuff Friday night, too. There’s not much room for impressive tertiary talents Gilbert and Robert Spillane, and all of the sudden Steelers fans are breathing easier about inside linebacker.
  • I’m thinking that one of these days cornerback will fall together in similar fashion.
  • Justin Layne will probably be a part of that, and he’ll look back to his below-average debut Friday as an awakening.
  • The third-round rookie was picked on by Jameis Winston on the first series, and then missed a tackle on the touchdown run. Layne did settle in for a team-high 80 snaps, and showed fairly well until missing another tackle on another touchdown run. Tackling had been one of Layne’s assets, thus the team-high 16 snaps on special teams.
  • As well as Bush played, the guy who jumped off the tape was nose tackle Javon Hargrave. At times he just rag-dolled the Tampa Bay interior.
  • Pay him. Pay that man his money.
  • I even wrote “Casey Hampton” in the margins after Hargrave had pulverized a guard.
  • Not sure if anyone else was tracking this, but I had Ola with two legitimate QB pressures in the first quarter, and bookend Anthony Chickillo with zero.
  • Play him. Play that man his position.
  • It’s funnier if you use your Teddy KGB Russian accent.
  • No? OK, no more lines from “Rounders.”
  • I also wrote at length Friday night about James Washington and Mason Rudolph and their clear improvement as second-year players. Terrell Edmunds and Jaylen Samuels flashed similar upticks, but another second-year player, Chuks Okorafor, struggled.
  • Mightily.
  • Not sure if it had to do with Okorafor swinging over to left tackle Friday night, but right now the Steelers can’t afford to lose Alejandro Villanueva. And this after I’ve been raving about the Steelers’ depth at offensive tackle.
  • On the right side, Zach Banner more than held his own. He in fact collapsed his side of the line to open a massive hole for Samuels’ 22-yard run.
  • I thought about Russ Grimm and how the former line coach described similarly massive Max Starks the day he was drafted: Yes, his feet are a bit slow but you need a taxi-cab to get around him. That’s what happened with Banner, and it opened the field for Josh Dobbs’ 36-yard scramble. The Bucs rusher was taking a long ride around Banner and Dobbs went through it.
  • The interesting part of that run was Banner may have made the only block. Look at all of the non-help downfield from the receivers. That was all Dobbs.
  • As well as Dobbs played, he’s still a 50-50 proposition to complete screen passes or anything else close to the line. Could it be that he’s far-sighted?
  • Johnny Holton could be an interesting find. He took a short Rudolph pass and ripped off a 59-yard gain. He was also the primary kickoff returner and a first-team punt gunner. He looks like the guy they want to replace Darrius Heyward-Bey as the big-bodied deep threat/special teams ace.
  • Holton was cut by Oakland last spring after three seasons. He went there out of the U of Cincinnati. Draft analyst Lance Zierlein called him a “straight-line speedster,” even though he only timed at 4.54 at the 2016 NFL Combine. But Holton does look faster.
  • Zierlein also called him a “soft blocker,” and I saw that too. He was one of those receivers not blocking for Dobbs.
  • Is it OK if we forget about Chris Boswell’s miserable 2018? That way I don’t have to make a big deal about his field goals — 33 and 47 yards — splitting the middle of the uprights after sounding like a Tom Hanks cue break in “The Color of Money.”
  • Yeah, I know, my movie references are dated. And I don’t have much coming up through the farm system, either. In fact, I was introduced to an actor named Chadwick Boseman the other day and didn’t know who he was. I was shamed for it, but I thought Mr. Boseman appreciated my indifference.
  • Getting back to that big run by Samuels, two things: 1.) I really enjoy watching Samuels run and am excited to see more of him with his weight loss this season, because he has that smooth sprinter’s stride by which no one thinks he’s running as fast as he is; and 2.) tight end Kevin Rader made the other key block as Banner blocked down.
  • I’ve watched Rader’s solid ball skills in practice and wanted to see some physicality last night. I did. He has the necessary want-to in that department.
  • However, fifth-round pick Zach Gentry may have locked up that third TE spot with his 3-yard touchdown catch. He’s a legit red zone target and a draft pick. Those will be difficult obstacles for Rader to overcome. However, Rader should know that the Steelers practice squad propelled Xavier Grimble to a solid career.
  • Couldn’t help but notice Maurkice Pouncey in street clothes giving Gentry a big hug on the sideline. Gentry and Rader were Pouncey’s two camp sleepers out of spring ball, and so all of the sudden I’m not worried about finding a tight end off the Sept. 1 scrapheap.
  • By the way, my spring sleeper, RB Ralph Webb, has already been cut.
  • Diontae Spencer, the small and quick return specialist out of the CFL, dropped an easy pass and his repeated drops are hurting his chances. But he did show legit return skills. He returned one punt 30 yards, and perhaps more impressive was the way he held onto the ball when — instead of fair-catching the first punt — he took a brutal blast from the Tampa Bay gunner. Pitt’s Quadree Henderson needed some of that risk-taking when he tried to make the team last year.
  • Spencer also returned a kickoff 35 yards, but, geez, that wide receiver group will be difficult to crack — especially if the drops continue.
  • It’s time we finally get to Tuzar Skipper. The rookie pass-rusher out of the Bronx, who lost his parents at age six and bounced around foster homes on his way to becoming Ola’s teammate at Toldeo, showed James Harrison-type strength in punching offensive tackles out of his path to running over quarterbacks. Well, he did that once, but the natural strength was obvious. Skipper also forced an intentional grounding penalty and later hit the QB to force a “duck” of a pass. Let’s also count how he pressured the QB out of the pocket and into a 26-yard completion, because the pressure is what mattered most. The statkeepers gave Skipper four QB hits in his 46 snaps.
  • Gilbert also hit the QB four times, and he, too, is out of the MAC — as are J.T. Jones, who had half a sack, and Gilbert. Those MAC backers were swarming the Bucs QB late in the game.
  • Some of the young safeties were interesting, too, but I don’t want Jordan Dangerfield all mad at me this week. I’ll just leave that here and wait for the young safeties to prove themselves Saturday against Kansas City.

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