It was a victory, which is the idea every time a team takes the field, but when it comes in a game that doesn't count in the standings it's more about how the victory was achieved. As Coach Mike Tomlin had said a couple of days before kickoff of the Hall of Fame Game, he would know a lot more about his team after it ended than he did before it started.
"I like their competes," Tomlin had said before the Steelers boarded their buses for the tip to their preseason opener. "This morning I was just talking about a term that we use in scouting: 'competes.' You hear it often, and it's really more centered around their will. I've seen some strong-willed men. I've seen some guys who like football. I've seen some guys who don't shrink in the face of competition or adversity, and that's exciting."
Their 16-3 win over the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night in Canton largely confirmed Tomlin's assessment. The Steelers had fewer than seven practices in pads before their preseason opener, and yet they played a relatively clean game, with only one turnover and three penalties. On offense, they were 2-of-3 in the red zone and 2-for-2 in goal-to-go situations, while their defense responded to adversity on the Cowboys' first two offensive possessions by allowing only a single red zone field goal despite Dallas moving the ball to Pittsburgh's 11-yard line and 10-yard line in the first half of the first quarter.
Preseason openers always are more about the young players getting a chance to reveal themselves while starting to build a resume, and between the decisions to hold out some of the veterans and the precaution exercised with many of the walking wounded, there was a lot of opportunity for the young guys.
Najee Harris played into the second quarter and already is looking like an NFL feature back. He generally gained more yards than the blocking dictated. He caught the ball when it was thrown to him. He stuck his nose in there on pass protection. He competed.
"I thought that he showed some of the things that he's been showing in practice settings," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "That's what we were looking for. We weren't looking for the spectacular. I talked to him and others during the course of the week. We wanted to make routine plays, routinely. We wanted the pile to fall forward and things of that nature. He did all of the things we've been watching him do. It's a really good start for him."
This will be Alex Highsmith's second NFL season, but his first where he begins as the assumed starter at a defensive position. Highsmith didn't do anything different than what he had been doing during padded practices at Heinz Field, and that's a compliment. Kendrick Green played anonymously in his first NFL game at center, which is another compliment. And while Chase Claypool was involved in the team's only turnover when he and Mason Rudolph botched the execution of a jet sweep, he also made a diving catch for a 45-yard gain later that was a big-time play.
Because there are five weeks before the regular season opens, this is still the time when attention can be paid to the guys on the lower rungs of the depth chart because, the guys whose battles will yield the depth that hopefully will lessen the sting once the inevitable injuries begin cropping up. And a lot of the players currently competing for those spots flashed in ways that hinted at promise for good things to come.
Cornerback Mark Gilbert had two passes defensed, plus a special teams tackle and a downed punt at the Dallas 1-yard line. Buddy Johnson was credited with just one tackle, but he was more active than what that might indicate. Outside linebacker Quincy Roche had a sack with Dallas in Steelers territory. Defensive lineman Abdullah Anderson had a sack when the Steelers were trying to close out the game.
Tre Norwood had a pass defensed in the red zone and got a hand on a field goal attempt that ended up missing badly. Calvin Bundage finished with two special teams tackles. Pressley Harvin III finished with a net average of 45.5 yards, with three of his four punts inside the 20-yard line. Matthew Sexton looked like a veteran when he set up the coverage by starting outside to create a lane for himself and then cutting back to take advantage of it for a 36-yard punt return. Kalen Ballage ran with power, and he got some help from a pancake block by tight end Kevin Rader on his 4-yard touchdown run.
"We were thankful to win," said Tomlin. "Anytime we step into a stadium that's the objective. But larger than that, from a big picture standpoint, there's a lot to be learned from the things that happened. Some positives, some things that we can build upon, some things that were negative that we need to eliminate from our play in all three phases. Just in general, I like the enthusiasm and the energy with which the guys played. I just think that's important. We were able to carry energy into the stadium.
"I'll tell you; I don't think any of us missed the fact that just having a stadium full of fans, what that does. The energy that the fans provided us, being without that largely, for over a year, it was good to be back in that type of a football environment. We were appreciative of that."
With the Steelers set to send five more members of their organization into the Hall of Fame in the next few days, and with Canton's proximity to Western Pennsylvania, it was no surprise when the Terrible Towels dominated the stands at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. But what veteran Steelers understand, and what the younger players will come to learn quickly is that you're only as loved as your most recent performance.
The Steelers most recent performance, while far from perfect, hinted at promise for better ones as this process continues. And that's as good as it gets in early August.
"Our conditioning held up and that's a good thing to see," said Tomlin. "You're never really sure how that's going to come together in terms of all three phases: offense, defense, and special teams. I liked our in-game awareness in terms of guys moving from one unit to another. I think largely we had 11 guys on the field, and that sounds funny, but first time out, particularly as you get into the second half of things, it gets challenging. I thought the guys just did a really good job of putting their conditioning on display, and I thought they did a really good job of just staying in tune to the game and being where it is they're supposed to be."
A successful night. A good first step. One of next week's challenges is to show they all understand it was only a first step.