BY KEVIN GORMAN
If this was the Steelers’ final exam, as Mike Tomlin called it, the rocket scientist passed with flying colors.
Before the preseason finale against the Carolina Panthers Thursday night at Heinz Field, it appeared a foregone conclusion that aerospace engineer Josh Dobbs would be the odd man out in the quarterback battle.
Dobbs did his best to make that decision as difficult as possible, as he was one of five players to make a positive impression just two days before the Steelers have to make final cuts to their 53-man roster:
1. Great escape
Dobbs completed 8 of 12 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown, but what separates him from Ben Roethlisberger, Landry Jones and Mason Rudolph is the ability to use his legs.
Dobbs wasn’t sacked in three preseason games — although a roughing-the-passer penalty by Carolina negated one – and escaped pocket pressure several times against the Panthers.
On a third-and-6 at the Steelers’ 25, Dobbs lost a snap, caught it off the bounce and spun out of a potential sack to run for a 10-yard gain. He finished a 10-play, 79-yard drive with a naked bootleg, cutting back to leap across the goal line for a touchdown.
The Steelers have to decide whether they are willing to part with a quarterback who brings a dangerous dimension the others don’t.
2. Going deep
Justin Hunter earned a vote of confidence from Roethlisberger with a 32-yard toe-drag touchdown against the Tennessee Titans, and gained more against the Panthers.
But Hunter knew it could have been so much more. He also missed a signal from Big Ben that both believed could have resulted in an 80-yard touchdown, and was stripped on a pass for an interception.
Hunter took advantage of the absence of James Washington, who was out with an oblique injury. Targeted four times, Hunter had three catches for 72 yards in the first half.
Dobbs went to Hunter for an 18-yard completion on a third-and-10 and followed with an 8-yard pass. But the big play came on the second series, when Hunter made a nice catch over cornerback LaDarius Gunter for a 46-yard gain to the Carolina 40.
Hunter earned a shot to be the Steelers’ deep threat.
3. Believe it or not
On his first carry, Stevan Ridley was stopped for no gain.
On his second, Ridley looked like he was shot out of a canon, breaking off a 17-yard gain.
That should have been no surprise to the Steelers, given that Ridley had just returned to practice after being out with an injury.
“He’s got energy. The first thing you see with a guy that’s missed some time is how much juice they’ve got,” Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. “You realize some of these have been going … and haven’t missed a day. Those guys that have been injured and took a little time off, now all of a sudden they’re fresh, they’re running around and they look like a million dollars.”
The time off didn’t help Ridley, a sixth-year veteran who was signed last December. James Conner established himself as the backup and fifth-round pick Jaylen Samuels showed his dual-threat ability against the Titans.
But Ridley rushed for 36 yards on seven carries in the first half, and might have opened eyes around the league.
4. Keeping up with Jones
Receivers should be evaluated by more than their ability to catch passes, but it’s where Tevin Jones caught his that made the best impression.
Jones was on the receiving end of touchdown throws by both Dobbs and Rudolph, the first a 27-yarder for a 14-0 lead at 5:10 of the first quarter and the second a 24-yarder for a 25-7 edge with 53 seconds left in the second quarter.
At 6-foot-2, 225-pounds, Jones is a big target who isn’t afraid to catch passes in traffic. Of course, he dropped just such a pass in the third quarter.
But Jones made up for it with a 39-yard catch – thanks to nice blocking by tight end Bucky Hodges – and drawing a pass-interference penalty on the following play.
Jones probably won’t make the cut, but could be headed for the practice-squad if he clears waivers.
5. Ola means hello
Ola Adeniyi might have the odds stacked against him, given that he’s an undersized outside linebacker from a MAC school who went undrafted.
But so was the previous No. 92.
Adeniyi shares something else in common with James Harrison, and that’s an uncanny ability to rush the passer. He ended the preseason the same way he started it, with a blindside strip-sack to force a fumble.
On a third-and-9 at the Carolina 34, Adeniyi hit Garrett Gilbert for an 8-yard loss. Outside linebacker Keion Adams recovered the fumble at the Panthers’ 29, setting up a Steelers touchdown in the final minute of the first half.
Adeniyi might be an outside shot to earn a spot on the 53-man roster, but has proven that he can rush the passer. That’s something the Steelers – who led the NFL in sacks last season – can’t ignore.