EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – No matter what happened here on Friday night, it was going to come with the caveat "it's only the preseason," but even with that the preference is to be tempering enthusiasm rather than dulling disappointment. When the Steelers return to Saint Vincent College in the next 24 hours to begin their final week of training camp, they'll be doing a lot more of the former, and that's by far the better problem to have.
Their 20-12 victory over the New York Giants in both teams' preseason opener was as ugly, as imperfect, as such a game could be, and to come out of it with a victory, and to come out of it with a victory that was more a result of grit than aesthetics might have been the most beautiful thing about it.
It isn't often that a team wins a game in which its quarterbacks combine for a 40.7 passer rating, in which its offense manages just 10 first downs while converting 3-of-13 third downs, in which it ended up trailing in time of possession by more than seven minutes. But that's the kind of night it was for the Steelers.
Rookie Josh Dobbs started at quarterback, and the offense went three-and-out on its first two possessions before he ended the next two with interceptions. In that rough early going, it was the defense that kept the Steelers within striking distance by forcing the Giants to settle for red zone field goals after both of the turnovers, and that it was just a six-point deficit instead of 14 had to be what allowed what followed to have the significance it did.
Dobbs would settle down and stop throwing it to the other team, and in the meantime he made a play with his feet to get one first down and put the ball in a place where Landry Jones could make a leaping catch for a 44-yard gain that was the big gain in the possession that ended with Chris Boswell's 48-yard field goal and halved the deficit to 6-3.
Game action photos from the Steelers' first preseason game against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium.
Mixed in during this initial flurry of offensive ineptitude by the Steelers were sacks by No. 1 pick T.J. Watt on the first two pass plays the Giants attempted in the game. Two sacks by Watt on the first four NFL offensive plays he saw is a lot more impressive in the reading about it than it was in the actual doing of it, because both were gifted to him via mental errors made by the Giants. But two sacks are two sacks any way you want to describe them. Even a great pass-rusher like Lawrence Taylor has gift sacks somewhere on his Hall of Fame resume, and now Watt doesn't have to answer questions about when he's going to record his first one as a professional.
On the night, the Steelers defense finished with seven sacks and one takeaway, with the other takeaway coming courtesy of special teams. Arthur Moats finished with three sacks and an interception to end the same week that started with him being listed as the No. 3 left outside linebacker behind Bud Dupree and Anthony Chickillo on the Steelers initial depth chart of 2017. As previously mentioned, Watt had two, linebacker Farrington Huguenin had one in the fourth quarter, and camp phenom Mike Hilton, the first-year cornerback from Mississippi, had a sack and his recovery of a muffed punt set up the Steelers first touchdown, which came on a 28-yard pass from Dobbs to Hamilton on a route similar to the one that produced the 44-yard gain earlier in the evening.
With quarterbacks Dobbs and Bart Houston looking like the rookies they are, the Steelers best bet on offense was a running attack that produced 124 yards on the night and averaged 4.6 per attempt along the way. Undrafted rookie Terrell Watson led the way with 44 yards on 10 carries, with Knile Davis adding 34 on eight attempts, and when the coaches grade the video they'll see that first-year tight end Jake McGee was a help to both of them.
The Steelers won their preseason opener, and they did it without Ben Roethlisberger, Martavis Bryant, Sammie Coates, Mike Mitchell, Landry Jones, Artie Burns, Le'Veon Bell, Sean Davis, Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Maurkice Pouncey, Al Villanueva, Anthony Chickillo, and William Gay. The Giants held out many of their best players as well, but the most heartening thing about the evening can be found in something Watt said after the game about his first taste of professional football, and it applies to many of the guys who ended up being the difference-makers for the Steelers at MetLife Stadium.
"Just getting out there in general and getting out there and having plays (on defense) under my belt and on special teams and to have the sack definitely helps to calm the nerves a little bit," said Watt. "But at the same time, I felt like I belonged here. I came into this game with a certain amount of confidence because of the work we put in."
So many of the young Steelers showed they belonged, and that deserves to be recognized as the best thing to come from this. Because, don't forget, it's only the preseason.