It's difficult to imagine things going any better for the Steelers than they did during Thursday night's preseason game against the Eagles in Philadelphia.
Coach Mike Tomlin had indicated in the days leading up to the game that it would be used to continue the evaluation process of players on the team's 90-man roster, and to that end there were 77 guys who saw action against the Eagles. And after falling behind, 13-0, the Steelers rallied for a 24-16 victory. Or as Tomlin said, "Even in August, I tell those guys that if they turn the scoreboard on, we play to win."
In terms of what might come from the evaluations, here are some that seemed apparent:
• The decision to sign Dwayne Haskins after he was waived by Washington and then not claimed by any other team likely because of a flagrant case of immaturity both on and off the field, plus a contract befitting a proven NFL starting quarterback, which he definitely was not, was worth the minimal risk involved.
• At various times last season, running back Anthony McFarland looked like a wasted draft pick. Today, he is looking like a multi-skilled offensive player who very well could blossom into a nice complement/change-of-pace option to starter Najee Harris.
• Dan Moore has gone from a rookie who didn't even understand how to practice like a professional – as evidenced by that series of mindless skirmishes with veteran Cam Heyward during the early portion of training camp at Heinz Field – and grown into an offensive lineman who plays with the very demeanor the Steelers are working to establish at this position and now is looking to be a sensible and solid option to open the regular season as the team's swing tackle on game days.
• Anyone looking to identify who might provide the defense with depth at outside linebacker and is failing to mention first-year pro Jamir Jones is ignoring the obvious.
• The offensive line may be a collection of new guys playing different positions, a work in progress currently lacking cohesion because of a lack of on-field time together, but so far it is not the liability it was predicted to be. At least now it's not, and it's reasonable to expect things to improve once the proper personnel get the opportunity to string some practices together to develop that cohesion that's currently lacking.
• Tight end Zach Gentry isn't yet in the class of Heath Miller or Mark Bruener as a blocker, but he's a lot better in that phase of the game than converted quarterback Zach Gentry was during his first two seasons in the league.
• Kevin Dotson has plenty of time to work himself back into Mike Tomlin's good graces and be the starting left guard on Sept. 12 when the Steelers open their regular season against the Bills in Buffalo.
• All of a sudden, the Steelers trade of a future fourth-round pick to select defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL Draft looks like a savvy move to add a promising prospect at a position of perpetual need.
• And what looked to be the defense's weak link appears to have been addressed in dramatic fashion via a reported trade that will bring to them a soon-to-be 28-year-old former Pro Bowl inside linebacker who has talked about joining the Steelers organization as the saving grace of his professional career.
Let's go back to the top of this list and fill in some details.
Since donning a Steelers helmet, Haskins has looked nothing like an off-the-scrap-heap reclamation project he in fact was, and in Philadelphia his five series on the field resulted in three touchdowns and a field goal. It's not time to anoint Haskins, but it seems safe to predict he will deserve a spot on the 53-man roster.
McFarland might turn out to be a nice complement to Najee Harris, either out of a two-back formation or as a change-of-pace substitute in certain situations. So far in this, his second season, McFarland has shown some burst, some receiving skills, and some promise as a legitimate offensive weapon for a team that could use more than one in its backfield.
Moore plays with an attitude. He sealed the edge on McFarland's 1-yard touchdown, and as you might remember from 2020, 1-yard touchdown runs were a rare occurrence for the Steelers. For an offensive line that is undergoing much change both in personnel and playing style, adding a prospect at the critical tackle position bodes well for the near future on a team where both starting tackles could become unrestricted free agents in the next two offseasons.
Jones looks like the No. 4 outside linebacker right now, and if he ends up in that role he won't just be along for the ride. A core special teams player, Jones has a sack and five pressures so far this preseason, and one of those pressures resulted in Justin Layne's interception, which Haskins and the offense converted into one of the Steelers' touchdowns.
Gentry didn't make a catch he will tell you he should have made, but he was a physical presence against a 4-3 defense, and against that alignment tight ends can end up having to block defensive ends. Based on his showing against the Eagles, it wouldn't be a stretch to view Gentry as the best blocking tight end on the roster right now.
Dotson may have to earn his way back into the starting lineup, but there's enough time for that to happen, and once it does, he will belong there. The Steelers ran the football in the fourth quarter against the Eagles when the Eagles knew they were going to run the football, and Dotson was on the field for a lot of that.
The first couple of times the Eagles had the football, quarterback Jalen Hurts was making a living throwing the football to tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, and both of those guys were open consistently even though starting inside linebackers Devin Bush and Robert Spillane were on the field. The Steelers made no attempt to help them with scheme, but they also were unable to make any plays on the ball to prevent the completions.
"I'm not overly concerned about that right now," said Tomlin about the Eagles' success throwing to their tight ends. "Our defensive menu is on a note card. We're not trying to trick anybody. We want to see who can rush and who can cover. So, from a quarterback standpoint, we're not challenging them intellectually. They will hit some plays, and we're OK with that. We want to evaluate our guys. Sometimes when you are tricking quarterbacks, then you're not evaluating your guys. Tonight, we faced a veteran quarterback like Joe Flacco, so our second unit is playing against him. He's going to do some things, and we're OK with that. Our emphasis is to evaluate our guys."
Maybe the Steelers were content to evaluate their guys, but they weren't necessarily OK with those evaluations. Early in the game, social media was abuzz with "news" that the Steelers had swung a trade with Jacksonville to acquire inside linebacker Joe Schobert, a player the team knows well from his seasons in the middle of the Cleveland Browns' defense. While there was no confirmation of the trade by the Steelers, both Schobert and his wife referred to the trade as if it were a done deal, and it's expected it will be confirmed once the paperwork is approved and completed.
What the Steelers will be getting is a linebacker with 65 NFL starts who has posted nine interceptions, 24 passes defensed, 11 sacks, and nine forced fumbles, while averaging over 100 tackles a season over his five-year professional career.
"I thought the conditioning of our big people was evident as the game went on, and it was a winning edge on (offense and defense)," said Tomlin. "I like the way that we supported one another. What I mean is the defense gets a turnover, the offense gets on a short field and punches it in for seven. Later in the half, we turn the ball over, get put on the short field, and the defense responds. We then preserve the points and get a turnover. Complementary offense and defense are big. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that. That type of mentality in the face of adversity and supporting teammates is a big component of team development. Those are the things that really capture my attention."
Those are some of the things that won the day vs. the Eagles. And the really good news is there were a bunch of other developments Thursday night that could contribute to more of those kinds of days.