PITTSBURGH — Dri Archer’s first touch in the NFL showed why the Pittsburgh Steelers took the quick running back in the third round of this year’s draft.
It also proved symbolic of how far Archer — and his team — have to go with a month until the regular season.
Archer’s 46-yard catch-and-run provided the lone offensive highlight during the first string’s brief night of work in a 20-16 exhibition loss to the New York Giants on Saturday. The 5-foot-8 Archer lined up as one of five wide receivers on Pittsburgh’s first possession, took a screen pass from Ben Roethlisberger and darted deep inside Giants territory.
“It was an open space,” Archer said. “My teammates knew and blocked well and it was a great play.”
The only thing Archer didn’t do was make it to the end zone. The player who posted the fastest time at the scouting combine was tracked down at the New York 14. Consider it Archer’s “Welcome to the NFL” moment.
“Yeah I know I should (score), but everything happens for a reason,” Archer said. “The (Giants) played their defense well and they had a great angle and made a great stop.”
The Steelers failed to turn the big play into a touchdown, instead settling for the first of Shaun Suisham’s three field goals. While Roethlisberger quickly headed to the sideline to trade his helmet for a baseball cap, some of the other starters saw extended play.
Second-year wide receiver Markus Wheaton — trying to hold off a crowded field for the right to start alongside Pro Bowler Antonio Brown — hauled in a 28-yard pass from backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski. The drive ended with a missed field goal, though Gradkowski was encouraged by the way the youngsters threw themselves into the fray.
“We need them to continue to step up and make plays and understand that we don’t wait on you; you’ve got to come up and play with the big boys now,” Gradkowski said.
There were some issues on both sides of the ball. The offense converted just 2 of 14 third downs while the first-string defense allowed New York running back Rashad Jennings to bolt 73 yards for a touchdown. Not a dazzling start for a unit that gave up 11 plays of 50 yards or more last season.
“I didn’t get it done, just put it that way,” defensive lineman Cameron Heyward said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself and I messed up first team. I have to learn from this and it won’t happen again.”
Coach Mike Tomlin kept the defensive starters on the field for another two series, with promising results. Second-year linebacker Jarvis Jones sacked Eli Manning on New York’s next possession, matching the former first-round pick’s entire sack total from his rookie season.
Jones wasn’t the only linebacker to make an impact. Undrafted rookie free agent Howard Jones scored Pittsburgh’s lone touchdown when he scooped up a New York fumble and zipped 28 yards to give the Steelers the lead in the fourth quarter.
While Jones isn’t in the mix to crack a starting group that includes Jarvis Jones and Lawrence Timmons, his heady play is the one that will certainly do him favors as he tries to land a spot on the 53-man roster.
Still, Tomlin wasn’t exactly thrilled after his team lost its fifth straight preseason game. Pittsburgh went 0-4 in exhibition play last summer, and then promptly dropped its first four regular-season games. Tomlin is convinced that wasn’t a coincidence.
“We can learn and we can grow, but I’m not worried about style points,” he said. “It’s more about winning and we have to do a better job there. We’ll take this as part of the process.”
The Steelers host Buffalo next week in its preseason home opener. The teams will practice together on Wednesday and Thursday, a move expected to provide a jolt to the final days of training camp.
“I think we were all eager to see what this offense can do,” running back Le’Veon Bell said. “We went through a tough stage tonight. Now we have to get ready for the next one.”