It's a characterization Mike Tomlin uses regularly because he knows his players have an ingrained understanding of the terminology. NFL players all grew up playing the sport, and so they know the difference between the varsity and the junior varsity. But beyond that, they know the difference between a varsity-type performance and a junior varsity-type performance.
On Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field, the Steelers defense turned in a varsity-type performance. It was their first this summer and that it came in what's generally viewed as the one preseason game not treated as an out-and-out exhibition should be heartening to fans and serve as a confidence builder to the 53 guys who will be boarding buses in a couple of weeks for a trip to Cleveland.
The Steelers defeated the Tennessee Titans, 16-6, in the game, and the victory raised their record to 2-1, and the surprise in the juxtaposition of those two bits of information is that very recently it seemed impossible for them to end up defeating any opponent in any game in which they scored so few points. But it now has happened once, which means it can happen again.
There is a lot of statistical evidence to back up the varsity-type performance claim, and it's offered now to help create a mental image of what was happening on the floor of Heinz Field.
The Steelers first-team defense played one series into the second half, which worked out to seven offensive possessions for the Titans. On those seven possessions, the Titans' scorecard read: no points, five punts, one turnover on an interception by rookie Terrell Edmunds, and a one-play possession at the end of the first half that was nothing but one kneel-down to run out the final three seconds.
Breaking that down a bit further, the Titans managed four first downs over those seven possessions, all of which came on an opening drive that nevertheless ended with a punt; and the other five times they got the ball Tennessee went three-and-out, with the exception of the one-play kneel-down drive. And just a few more statistics to add to the pile: The Titans ran the football 13 times for 30 yards during the time in question, they were 2-for-8 on third downs, their longest gain was a 12-yard pass completion, and the Steelers had three sacks.
Just as important as the results were some of the individuals authoring them. Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt combined for four tackles and two sacks, and Vince Williams added three tackles of his own and another sack.
For the Steelers to be solid against the run, Heyward and Tuitt have to be playmakers but also space-eaters, and the play of the inside linebackers is something to be monitored as the unit continues the process of adapting to the absence of Ryan Shazier.
"Coming in we knew that we needed to control their (defensive) front," said Titans Coach Mike Vrabel. "I think that was one of the keys of the game to be able to control their front seven, and I don't think we did that consistently. We need to run the ball. When you're on the road you have to be able to run the ball and you have to take some shots. We weren't able to do that early in the game, and we kind of found ourselves behind."
While we're still waiting to see the new deployment of outside linebackers Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt in a preseason game, Dupree showed improvement over last week in Green Bay, which was when he made his preseason debut. He set the edge against the run and got some pressure on Marcus Mariota despite being matched up against Taylor Lewan, the highest paid left tackle in football.
One of Dupree's pressures forced Mariota out of the pocket and had him running to his left when tried to get the ball down the field to wide receiver Taywan Taylor. Terrell Edmunds played the receiver perfectly and was in position to make his first NFL interception, and then he showed an ability to get to top speed quickly going the other way on a 30-yard return to the Tennessee 24-yard line.
"We are still tightening up. We can still be a whole lot better, but at the same time I think we are coming along very well," said Joe Haden. "I think today was a good stand for us to be able to have as many defensive players out there and play pretty well. I think it's just the standard. This is something that we want to continue to do and as long as we get more and more reps and everybody is healthy going into the season, we should be fine."
"Should be fine" would've sounded farfetched in the aftermath of the game in Green Bay, and it still might come off as a bit too optimistic, if for no other reason than there still are some key components – Watt and Morgan Burnett – who have fallen behind because of nagging injuries that have kept them off the field and away from the teammates with whom they will need to be in sync come the regular season.
But based on how the defense played against the Titans, the impression that the unit "could be fine" seems to be a realistic assessment, and it also is an accurate depiction of the progress that has been made. It was a varsity performance, and in most cases – as football evaluators typically categorize things – that's going to be good enough to win with.