PHILADELPHIA – But it's only a preseason game.
Win, lose, or tie, that was going to accompany any analysis of what happened here last night, but it's always much more palatable for the players and coaches when the caveat is being used to temper enthusiasm instead of as a salve for a defeat. Not that the Steelers played a perfect 60 minutes or anything, not that their performance wasn't rife with things that will provide teaching points for their final few days at Saint Vincent College.
But in a 31-14 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, the Steelers played a cleaner game than the defending Super Bowl champions, and in a preseason opener that's about as good as it gets.
The Steelers finished plus-2 in turnover ratio, they were assessed fewer penalties than the Eagles, 8-11, for fewer yards, 42-72, and didn't run afoul of the new leading-with-the-helmet rule while the Eagles were flagged for that twice. The most knucklehead thing the Steelers did in the penalty column was get called twice for lining up over the long-snapper on conversion attempts, and they also were flagged once for being offside on a kickoff, which is nearly impossible to do now that players aren't permitted to get a running start in coverage.
The Eagles were not as poised in this area, and the Steelers twice took advantage of Philadelphia transgressions to stick the ball into the end zone.
The Steelers took a 7-0 lead on a play that began with Landry Jones using a hard count to draw an Eagles defensive lineman offside before throwing up a rainbow down the left sideline that ended with JuJu Smith-Schuster making a combat catch and then running away from cornerback Rasul Douglas to complete a 71-yard touchdown play.
On another touchdown drive, an 11-play, 75-yard march that answered the Eagles first touchdown and returned the lead to the Steelers, critical penalties at critical moments committed by Philadelphia defenders allowed the possession to continue. On a third-and-4 from the Steelers 31-yard line, Josh Dobbs completed a pass to Damoun Patterson that gained only 2 yards, but it became a first down when cornerback Sidney Jones drew a 15-yard penalty for leading with his helmet on the tackle.
"We've worked extremely hard to adjust, as I'm sure everyone has," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "But you never know until you get into a stadium environment. It was good tonight. We won't relax. We'll keep the focus because those are significant penalties. One of our scoring drives was kept alive because of penalties in that regard. So it's just an interesting point, a significant point to make to the guys, whether it involves us as the ones who got penalized or not."
So, instead of a punt, the Steelers had a fresh set of downs, and instead of settling for a red zone field many plays later they got a fresh set of downs when Eagles defensive end Josh Sweat roughed Dobbs after he threw incomplete to James Washington on a third-and-goal from the Philadelphia 4-yard line. Fitz Toussaint stuck the ball in the end zone on the next play.
Speaking of that Toussaint touchdown, another promising aspect of the Steelers performance against the Eagles was the way the team responded with a touchdown each time Philadelphia scored a touchdown. The ability to answer an opponent's score with one of your own is a trait good teams have, and for one night at least these Steelers had it.
These Steelers also displayed some not-great run defense, with Jay Ajayi once putting together a 22-yard run because he slipped attempted tackles by four different defenders. But mitigating some of those lapses were some tackles for loss that followed and caused the Eagles to come away with no points to show for their rushing statistics. One Philadelphia possession covered 53 yards and included three first downs but still ended with a punt, while another covered 64 yards and included four first downs but ended with a turnover on downs.
Another factor that allowed the Steelers to negate the 106 yards rushing the Eagles managed while averaging 4.4 per attempt were their three takeaways. There were interceptions by Coty Sensabaugh and Cam Sutton in the first half, and a fumble recovery by Keion Adams following a strip-sack by Ola Adeniyi on the opening possession of the third quarter.
"It's great to get the win," said Tomlin. "Whenever we step into a stadium, regardless of the circumstance, that is our singular focus and then the evaluation of the play comes after that. We wanted to focus on some really fundamental things tonight: putting our conditioning on display, trying to play clean football from a technical standpoint, to minimize penalties, and to win the possession of the ball – to take better care of it on offense and to hunt it on defense. And largely those things happened throughout the game. Of course there will be a lot to learn from this video, as there always is, but generally I was pleased with the fundamental things that we all collectively focused on as a group … A lot of good effort out there."
But it's only a preseason game.