Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner, who dropped three passes against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, runs the ball as Atlanta Falcons defensive back Sharrod Neasman (20) defends in the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Fred Vuich)(Fred Vuich)
It is incumbent upon to me to issue a reminder that the Steelers' 17-13 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at Heinz Field was only a preseason game.
Perhaps that will make it easier to review the long-awaited return of Martavis Bryant and the much-anticipated debut of James Conner.
To be kind, they had their moments but didn't make anyone forget about Antonio Brown or Le'Veon Bell.
“We just wanted to go out there and have fun and do what guys do, and that's play football, enjoy the game we love playing,” Bryant said. “We didn't want to add pressure to ourselves.”
Of course, this is the preseason. The Steelers know what they have in Bryant, who was catching passes from rookie quarterback Joshua Dobbs, not Ben Roethlisberger, and didn't have Brown opposite him.
But after a yearlong suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, Bryant was finally back in the starting lineup for the first time after 19 months in exile.
The Steelers went to him immediately, with Dobbs throwing a pass in the right flat for a 3-yard loss.
Bryant's next touch didn't go much better. He took an end-around off left tackle but fumbled out of bounds for a 1-yard loss. Two plays later, however, he caught a late-arriving pass down the right sideline for a 23-yard gain to the Atlanta 24.
“I was glad to play with my brothers and in front of the fans — the best fans in the world — and I'm just happy to be back out here,” Bryant said. “Everything can't be touchdown-touchdown-touchdown. You've got to keep working and learn from things. We're going to look at lots of film, see what went wrong and get better for it.”
Afterward, Conner was singing the same tune. The third-round pick from Pitt overcame three drops to finish with a game-high 98 rushing yards on 20 carries and one catch for 3 yards.
Where Bryant's return was brief, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he “wanted to get to know” Conner and told the rookie running back he would get as much as he could handle. It would be behind a starting offensive line missing Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and left guard Ramon Foster in the first half and a patchwork line in the second half.
Conner ran for a 3-yard gain on his first NFL touch, making his battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma seem like a lifetime ago instead of just 14 months removed from chemotherapy.
“Man, just awesome. At Heinz Field, so I was right at home,” Conner said. “My first carry in a Steelers uniform was something special.”
Conner was dropped for a 6-yard loss on second-and-10 at the Atlanta 24. Two plays later, however, he ran for an 11-yard gain to set up Chris Boswell's 42-yard field goal.
But it went backward from there. On the Steelers' next possession, Dobbs rolled right on third-and-4 at the Steelers 47 and flipped a pass to Conner. But Conner, too intent on turning up field, took his eyes off the ball and dropped the pass. On the next series, Conner would drop another pass on third-and-2 at the 49.
“It's nice to finish with running the ball hard,” Conner said, “but it's not acceptable for those passes I was dropping.”
What inspired Conner was the encouragement of teammates, who watched him go from playing for the Panthers to the Steelers.
“When taking the tunnel and walking to the field, it's like I've been doing it for so long, so it's comfortable,” Conner said. “It's with a different group of guys, but those guys embraced me.
“All of the veterans on this team, with me dropping the ball, came up to me and said, ‘Keep your head up.' It's a really special group of guys the Pittsburgh Steelers have.”
Conner took advantage of Bell's holdout in protest of his franchise-tag tender in the second half. He rushed for 85 yards on 15 carries, including runs of 17 and 19 yards to set up Bart Houston's 6-yard scoring pass to Justin Hunter for the win.
“I thought he represented himself well, particularly from a conditioning standpoint,” Tomlin said. “You can't underscore that element of it. I know as a professional athlete, he's generally in shape, but he hasn't played a lot of football. To be able to execute the large number of snaps that he did is encouraging.”
So was the sight of Bryant and Conner in Steelers uniforms, especially with both promising that we have yet to see their best.
Aug 20; Williamsport, PA; Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Josh Bell (55) hits a three run home run during the first inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field. Mandatory Credit: Brett Carlsen-USA TODAY Sports
WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- Despite spending the afternoon with 12-year-old Little Leaguers who idolize pros like himself, Josh Bell didn't find himself dispensing much advice.
"No one came to me and asked, `What do you think about my swing?" Bell said. "It was more like, `Follow me on Instagram' or like this or that picture. It was more lighthearted."
So he gave them a firsthand demonstration of how to hit one out.
The teams played at renovated Bowman Field, a 91-year-old minor league ballpark located 5 miles from where the Little League World Series is taking place. Sitting in the front rows were admiring Little Leaguers who got to mingle with the big league stars earlier in the day, part of a Major League Baseball initiative to celebrate youth baseball.
After the final out of MLB's first regular-season game in Williamsport, the Pirates shook hands on the field as usual following a victory. And then -- in a nod to Little League baseball -- both teams lined up at home plate and shook hands with each other, throwing in some hugs and high-fives to finish off a feel-good day.
"It was refreshing every once in a while to be able to look in the stands and see the kids watching the game," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "It was one of the highlights of my career."
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny also appreciated the atmosphere inside a 2,366-seat venue that was packed with 2,596 fans.
"You can't help but get caught up, especially these kids treating our players like they're heroes as they walk through there," Matheny said. "Pretty special stuff. I think that's something they never get used to completely."
Bell sent a pitch from Mike Leake (7-12) over the right-center wall for a two-run shot in the first inning. The rookie slugger added a two-run single in the third to give Pittsburgh the lead for good.
"He's a maturing player," Hurdle said. "His overall game has just found a good, competitive place at this level. He's become a very definite guy that can do some damage at the plate."
Adam Frazier homered for the second straight game and Andrew McCutchen added an RBI grounder for the Pirates, who were the "home" team and won their second in a row to split the four-game series. They snapped a six-game skid with a rain-delayed victory Saturday in Pittsburgh.
Pirates starter Ivan Nova (11-10) wasn't affected by Saturday's late finish. The team sent him to Williamsport early that day so he'd be rested and ready. And he was. Nova gave up three runs on eight hits and struck out five in 5 2/3 innings.
"No panic, no panic," Nova said. "I was just trying to stay ahead."
Felipe Rivero got three outs for his 14th save in 15 chances. With runners on first and second, Paul DeJong hit a long fly to center field for the final out.
Jedd Gyorko cut Pittsburgh's lead to 3-2 with a two-run homer in the second, his 17th of the season. Wong had an RBI single for St. Louis in the sixth.
The Pirates' bullpen held the Cardinals to two hits after Nova's exit.
BLAST FROM THE PAST
St. Louis players Lance Lynn and Grichuk both starred for their respective Little League teams. Grichuk made back-to-back appearances in the Little League World Series for Richmond, Texas, in 2003 and 2004. Lynn's team from Brownsburg, Indiana, went 0-3 in 1999.
A couple of Pirates also had memories of Williamsport.
Max Moroff was on the Maitland, Florida, team that advanced to the semifinals of the 2005 Little League World Series, and Hurdle spent a year managing the now-defunct Williamsport Bills, then a New York Mets affiliate. He was asked if any of the gear or keepsakes he signed Sunday had a Bills logo on it.
"Not one Williamsport Bills item has popped up," Hurdle said. "It was a very forgettable year."
The Bills went 60-79 in Hurdle's lone season.
LITTLE LEAGUERS TAKE PART
Little League players took part all night, beginning with the opening pitch.
A player from each team lined up from center field and around the bases to relay the first pitch to Pirates catcher Chris Stewart. Players also relayed lineup cards to officials, answered trivia questions on the field for Xboxes and signed memorabilia. Kids got the best seats in the house -- in the front rows and winding around both dugouts.
They also got a chance to take over the stadium public address system, announcing players as they walked to the plate, and were treated to nearly 200 snow cones bought by Cardinals outfielder Tommy Pham.
Cardinals: St. Louis is off Monday before Lynn (10-6) opens a six-game homestand against San Diego on Tuesday. Lynn, who struggled with a 5.68 ERA in June, has lowered that to 2.00 in three August starts.
Pirates: Gerrit Cole (10-8) faces the major league-leading Dodgers on Monday. Cole is 4-1 in his last eight starts.
James Conner runs against the Falcons in his Steelers debut (Fred Vuich/Associated Press)
PITTSBURGH -- That's two in a row for the perennial preseason losers. The Pittsburgh Steelers went 3-14 in their past four preseasons but have knocked off the New York Giants and the Atlanta Falcons in back-to-back weeks. That's not exactly exciting after the starters looked uninspired in the first half of Sunday's 17-13 home win over the Falcons. But at least former Pitt star James Conner's 98-yard debut and playmaking from some reserves kept the pace up.
QB depth chart:Josh Dobbs cleaned up his accuracy on short and over-the-middle passes, completing 9 of his first 14 attempts. He failed to stretch the field, a strength in his preseason opener against the Giants. Dobbs typically looks more comfortable when stepping into the pocket and going vertical. The Steelers tried a few deep balls early in the second half but couldn't connect. Overall, Dobbs (10-of-19, 70 yards, one interception) minimized mistakes. His late-game interception was fluky: He flicked the ball toward the sideline while getting pulled down for a sack.
When it was starters vs. starters, the Steelers looked … unspectacular. Hard to gauge with the Steelers sitting so many key players, but the defense let Falcons backups operate wide swaths of open field while catching passes from three different quarterbacks. Pittsburgh just looked a step late against the pass for much of the first half. The eventual return of four starters should aid those issues. The offensive line, sitting Ramon Foster and Maurkice Pouncey, didn't play with its usual edge in the running game.
One reason to be concerned: Nothing thwarts the Steelers' plans for blanket pass coverage quite like fringe roster guys Nick Williams and Reggie Davis combining for 112 first-half receiving yards. Veteran corner Ross Cockrellgot beat on a Davis go route for 44 yards. The pass coverage should be at least slightly better this season, and one preseason game won't affect those plans. But Sunday wasn't exactly the grand statement that 2017 will be much different. The second unit fared better, though against lesser competition.
That guy could start: Outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo wants to be known for more than his August camp flashes. Right now he's a backup. That likely won't change with the Bud Dupree-James Harrison-T.J. Watt trio in place. But Chickillo's two sacks Sunday reminded everyone that he keeps improving.
Rookie watch: After limited but promising camp work, the Steelers were eager to see Conner in game action. He put together a solid outing after a sluggish start that included two dropped passes on third downs. Conner rushed for 13 yards on his first five carries (11 of which came on a third-and-long) but started to use his power up the middle or off the edge, finishing with 98 yards on 20 carries. Conner can be too eager to bounce outside and needs to show more reliability as a pass-catcher, but overall he acquitted himself well with a bigger-than-expected workload. He seemed to gain strength as the game progressed, which is a good sign.
Quiet re-introduction:Martavis Bryant was pumped about his first game action in 19 months. He'll have big moments this season, but those will have to wait. Bryant finished with 20 yards on two catches, along with a fumble out of bounds on a reverse play. Bryant and Dobbs connected on a 23-yarder down the sideline but that was the only firework. Bryant was on a pitch count and didn't have Big Ben, so no worries here.
Don't sleep on Trey:Trey Williams, who showed good open-field wiggle in training camp, burst through a well-blocked seam for a 64-yard punt return touchdown. Williams doesn't have an inside track on a running back job but might just make things interesting.
The minute Le’Veon Bell got franchised, the end was written in stone: Bell would wait almost until preseason’s end to sign his tender and report, giving him just enough time to get ready for the Sept. 10 opener.
That’s still going to be the conclusion.
But there have been a few twists.
Bell has every right to delay his arrival. The Steelers exercised their end of the franchise option. Now Bell is exploiting his. If the Steelers wanted different, they should have worked out the long-term contract Bell desired.
That’s one of the twists: The Steelers say they did.
It was revealed Friday -- in a story obviously leaked by the Steelers -- that Bell’s agent, Adisa Bakari, allegedly agreed to a five-year deal worth $60 million, but Bell nixed it. Bell would reportedly have received $30 million over the pact’s first two seasons. (No word on how much money was guaranteed. That’s the key number.)
That narrative has some holes in it.
Bakari would not have agreed to a contract without first consulting Bell. No agent would.
Perhaps Bakari recommended Bell take the deal. That’s very different.
This story went public as an exclamation point to the Steelers getting increasingly antsy about Bell’s prolonged absence this preseason, something the Steelers seem illogically able to accept. It was always going to happen.
Owner Art Rooney and GM Kevin Colbert have whined about Bell not being there, and a few players have chimed in, too.
Would the Steelers lie about what Bell’s agent did?
Is Bruce Arians still retired?
Bakari says he never agreed to any deal. So it’s he-said, he-said. But this is a clear attempt by the Steelers to turn public sentiment against Bell.
Bell seems determined to stick to his demand for $15 million per season, memorably first negotiated in one of Bell’s really awful rap songs: “I’m at the top, and if not, I’m the closest. I’m a need 15 a year and they know this.”
I’m a throw up now.
Can Bell really ever make $15 million per?
He might come close next season. Given Bell’s demands and the growing bad blood, it seems increasingly possible that the Steelers might again franchise Bell in 2018, paying him over $14 million and then propelling Bell into free agency.
The Steelers really like James Conner, the rookie out of Pitt.
Bell’s versatility makes him the prototype for the running back position in today’s NFL. But Conner is the prototype for what the Steelers prefer a back to be: Big and bruising.
At 6-foot-2, 229 pounds, Conner invokes Jerome Bettis Lite. All Conner needs is a catchy nickname.
Despite the histrionics, this episode will conclude like it was always going to: Bell reports just in time to start the opener.
Unless Bell doesn’t start the opener.
The Steelers play at Cleveland in Week 1. Cleveland will be the AFC Central’s doormat and one of the NFL’s worst teams.
It would be just like Mike Tomlin, the Steelers’ coach, to say that Conner had “gone through the process” (or some such drivel) and start him at Cleveland. The Browns are bad, so a point could be made
Whatever that point might be.
Problem is, Tomlin’s Steelers too often lose to bad teams.
All this is a boon to the sports-talk business. If Bell starts poorly, Yinzer Nation goes insane and my industry gets a second helping.
None of this will hurt the Steelers’ season. Unless it does.
The real upshot occurs after the 2018 season, when Bell quits the Steelers and moves on. But his wheels will likely have fallen off by then.
Given Bell’s history of injuries and drug suspensions, that was probably the Steelers’ plan all along.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).
KINGSTON, Mass. — Apparently Evie Reissfelder wasn’t willing to miss this.
Her parents, meanwhile, were more than happy to do their part.
Little Evie, born premature at 6 pounds, 2 ounces just 12 days ago, provided one of the highlights of Penguins coach Mike Sullivan’s public viewing of the Stanley Cup Thursday afternoon at The Bog Ice Arena.
“She came a week early and very fast,” Evie’s mother, Jen, said. “She was determined to come out.”
Paul, Evie’s father, coaches girls hockey at Duxbury High, the school closest to Sullivan’s home. He had never met Sullivan but had heard from a couple friends about his approachable nature.
Those impressions were backed up Thursday. After shaking the coach’s hand, the group posed for a picture, placing the tiny baby in the Cup.
“Looking back, when she gets older, she’ll be like, ‘All right, I was in the Stanley Cup.’ ” Paul said. “That’s everyone’s dream.”
Sullivan relished the experience to share the Cup with the community, inside the rink where he once stood behind the bench for his own kids’ games.
“I feel like it’s our responsibility. I think all of our players feel that way,” Sullivan said. “I think that’s part of the hockey culture, regardless of which team wins it. Hockey players never forget where they came from. They always want to share in their successes. This is one way that we can do it.”
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Matt Cullen with his three sons after the Penguins won the 2016 Stanley Cup. (NHL)
Last weekend, Matt Cullen drove east to the Twin Cities to watch his three sons play hockey. On Wednesday, immediately after ending a conference call with the Wild media, Cullen ran into a rink in Grand Forks, N.D., to join his recently-retired hockey-playing brothers, Mark and Joe, so they could all coach their children in a series of games.
This is why Matt Cullen decided against retiring a back-to-back Stanley Cup champ and against re-signing with the Pittsburgh Penguins despite the allure of three-peating.
“I want my boys to experience playing hockey and watching me play hockey at home,” Cullen said. “This was a family decision.”
The former Moorhead High and St. Cloud State standout is returning to the Wild for a second stint and 20th NHL season. It was an agonizing decision. He loved his time in Pittsburgh. He adores General Manager Jim Rutherford, who has acquired him three times. And, of course, there was the appeal of being in Steel City for another banner raising.
But after letting the excitement of winning it all for a third time in his career wear off and making sure he felt fully energized to put his body through another 82-game and playoff run meat grinder, Cullen decided his heart was in Minnesota.
“Minnesota is home and it’s a special place for me,” Cullen said. “It’s not easy to say goodbye and it’s not easy to walk away [from Pittsburgh]. I’m confident in the decision we’re making and it’s the right thing for our family. But at the same time, it’s not an easy one.
“But at age 40, it’s time to let the kids plant some roots and settle down at home because, as you go through a long career, the kids give up a lot in order to allow you to play. At a certain point here, it becomes more important to be fair to them, too. It’s a great scenario that I can continue to play in the NHL and be home. It’s an organization I’m really comfortable with and happy to be a part of.”
This isn’t all family driven, Cullen made clear: “Last year I thought that Minnesota was the best team in the West that we faced during the regular season. … It’s going to be a really hungry group to win, and I think that last season probably left a sour taste for a lot of guys [in the playoffs].”
Cullen signed a one-year, $1 million contract with the chance to make another $700,000 depending on how many playoff rounds the Wild wins.
“I’m hoping we pay them all,” General Manager Chuck Fletcher quipped.
The deal inches the Wild close to the $75 million salary-cap ceiling once restricted free agent Marcus Foligno is signed. However, if Cullen hits his bonuses, there is a cushion that allows teams to exceed the cap by 7.5 percent if needed.
Coincidentally, Cullen and Foligno have the same agent.
Cullen, who will celebrate with the Cup on Aug. 31 in Moorhead and Fargo, N.D., was leaning toward going out on top in June. He has played 202 games the past two seasons, so he spent much of the past month discussing with his wife, Bridget, the pros and cons of continuing to play. The Wild made clear its interest but gave him the freedom to call back once he decided if he wanted to return. He scored 33 goals and 91 points in 193 games for the Wild in 2010-13.
The Cullens’ three boys spent the past two years being schooled by a private teacher at the Penguins’ practice facility. The couple wants to get their sons back into a regular routine where they can meet friends in Minnesota.
“[Bridget’s] fully on board and is behind me all the way. I’m really lucky that way,” Cullen said.
After taking a few weeks off, Cullen began training like he normally would. Last week, he even skated with local individual skills and skating coach Andy Ness.
He may turn 41 in November, but Cullen showed the past two seasons he can still skate terrifically. He won 56.4 percent of his faceoffs in the playoffs, has won over 50 percent of his draws in every season since 2003-04 and has scored at least 10 goals in 15 of his 19 campaigns.
The Wild needed another center after losing Erik Haula to expansion Vegas. Rookies Joel Eriksson Ek and Luke Kunin will vie for roster spots, but Cullen gives the Wild a veteran leader who can slide up and down the lineup with injuries or roster decisions. Coach Bruce Boudreau likes to shorten the bench late in games, and Cullen allows the Wild to move Charlie Coyle or Eriksson Ek to wing if needed. He’s also a top penalty killer.
Cullen, who has played the most games of anybody from the 1996 draft, has scored 248 goals and 689 points in 1,366 regular-season games. He has scored another 18 goals and 56 points in 123 playoff games. He will be reunited in Minnesota with Eric Staal, his close friend whom he won a Stanley Cup with in Carolina in 2006.
“I’ve talked to him quite a bit over the last couple weeks, and I’m excited for him and for our team,” Staal said. “Everyone that’s watched him play the last couple years for Pittsburgh knows he’s been an important part to that team, and I think he’ll fit nicely into a great role with our group.
“Playing with him in Carolina, and just watching how he prepared daily, how he took care of his body, how professional he is, I’m not surprised he’s still going now. We had a great, phenomenal couple years together there, and I think his experience, what type of teammate he is and his ability to play in all situations will be beneficial for our group."
T.J. Watt sacks Josh Johnson in last week's preseason opener. (Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)
You may recall that our time together in this space last week discussed the plight of the Steelers’ defense, one racked yet again by injuries to multiple members of the secondary, players ranging from the promising (Artie Burns) to the battle-hardened (Mike Mitchell) to the unknown (Cameron Sutton and sadly, Senquez Golson).
Last Friday’s preseason opener, a win over the New York Giants, offered flashes of hope that even if the secondary isn’t vastly improved this year, it may appear to be anyway. The reason? A rookie that, at first blush, made an eye-opening impression.
You would be forgiven, this close to the end of the Jarvis Jones Era, for forgetting what it is like to see a first-round defender make a major impact right off the bat. Sure, the usual disclaimers about preseason football apply, but T.J. Watt was present and accounted for, and if someone had told you before the game that the Steelers’ first-round pick was playing defense, but didn’t identify who it was, you wouldn’t have had to wait long to reach an answer.
Watt made plays when he was blocked. He made plays when he was unblocked. He flew all over the field and was noticeable in a good way. He displayed the combination of athletic ability, tenacity, explosiveness and finishing ability you’d expect from a first-rounder. His unblocked sack, one that required him to plant his foot and change direction quickly, drew raves from Joey Porter.
So eye-opening was Watt’s work that Porter more or less anointed Watt and Bud Dupree the Steelers’ primary pass-rushers for every snap, save ones where they need a breather or are injured. Yes, that means that the ageless James Harrison has been relegated to, as Porter put it, the role of “relief pitcher.”
This is a good thing, of course. Harrison’s workouts and longevity have earned him status as a cult favorite in the waning years of his career, but the fact of the matter is that the Steelers stand to be much, much better if Watt and Dupree are logging the bulk of the snaps. Harrison might not be happy about this, but his stubborn hold on the lion’s share of snaps for one outside linebacker spot was nothing less than a condemnation of Jones.
Youth is served at just about every position in the NFL. The list of players pushing 40 and playing at a Pro Bowl level is one: Tom Brady. Harrison’s ability to fight off Father Time has been a fun story in a sense, but also has served as a stark reminder of the Steelers’ defensive shortfalls.
T.J. Watt may not win Defensive Rookie of the Year. He might not log 15 sacks. He might not instantly become the best player on the Steelers’ defense. He might not be the singular difference that puts the Steelers over the top against Tom Brady. But he certainly appears to be off to a better start than Jarvis Jones. He certainly appears to be the kind of potential high impact player the Steelers desperately needed at outside linebacker. He appears to be the kind of guy that may be a big boost to a team trying to maximize the last few seasons of Ben Roethlisberger’s career.
One exhibition game does not a career make, but for a fan base accustomed to a few recent high-profile flops at what was once the most glamorous defensive post in the franchise, it was welcome proof that the world hasn’t turned completely upside down, that a guy can step in at outside linebacker with pedigree and expectations, and at the very least deliver the kind of performance that gets fans thinking about his ceiling, not wondering if they’re looking at his floor.
Chris Mueller is the co-host of "The Starkey & Mueller Show" from 2-6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 The Fan.