Yeah, it sucks to look at the final score and see a Steelers loss. It's even more discouraging to see some injuries along the way. As fans, we want to see definite progress on some of the issues that derailed the 2011 season, and it's hard to see that in the action from Thursday night.
I could offer the usual platitudes to try and comfort Steeler Nation. I could remind you that the Steelers had a solid lead after the first half, a good indication of who would have won had the starters actually played the entire game. I could remind you that it's just preseason one; the team hasn't opened up the playbook. I could remind you of the players who didn't participate.
But you know these things already, and could have anticipated me saying them even before the game started. Instead, let's look at a few positives from the game. Let's look at the weaknesses, and determine if they're things that can be improved between now and the season opener in Mile High Stadium.
1. Steve McLendon.
Count me impressed by McLendon. Not only was he effective and punishing, but he was strong against the Eagles' starters. The sack stands out as his splash play, but I liked the way he played to the whistle, shedding blocks at key moments to follow the play. If he keeps up this level off effort and hustle, he could supplant Casey Hampton as the starting nose tackle sooner rather than later.
2. Time of Possession.
Despite considerable pressure on Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers put together a long drive right out of the gates. They overcame a few 3rd-and-long situations along the way to a field goal. While none of the plays particularly stand out, consider what the opposition managed to produce in their first few drives: nothing. There's plenty of room for improvement, certainly, but I see the beginning of a tenacious offense.
3. Depth Chart Competition
A few individuals made a strong case for their continued presence on the roster. They'll have to continue to impress, but that's a given. I thought Brandon Johnson was a bit of surprise. His pressure on the quarterback directly lead to Al Woods' interception, and he made several good tackles to stifle the Eagles' running game. Adrian Robinson was one of the second-half standouts. Daniel Hrappmann's field goal was dead-on, timely, and performed under pressure.
1. Offensive Line Woes
This is the one that hurts. After all the emphasis on protecting Big Ben, it was excruciating to see him sacked twice in the first drive. There's time for this unit to gel together, provided that Marcus Gilbert stops falling on his teammates' knees, and we've yet to see Max Starks and Willie Colon on the field, so I'm willing to believe that the performance of the offensive line will improve dramatically over the next few weeks. However, I do hope that Tomlin and Kugler use the game tape to light a fire under a few (huge) asses.
2. Red Zone Efficiency.
I was happy to see Haley calling run plays in the end zone, but disheartened by the results. The Steelers need to be better here. Again, they should be more effective when the team opens up the playbook, and some changes to the line could make a large difference. Based on Tomlin's postgame comments, I think we can expect the team to put a lot of work into this area of their game.
The worst thing that can happen in the preseason is to lose players to injuries. It looks like David Johnson is out for the season. Saunders' suspension for the first four games of the season compounds the Steelers' woes at tight end. Hopefully, Will Johnson can perform at fullback, but he didn't exactly impress. The Steelers may need to look outside of their current roster to find answers at fullback and tight end. I haven't seen as much information about Mike Adams, but at best he's going to miss valuable time to develop. However, the Steelers already prepared for a situation like this by signing Max Starks.
4. Special Teams.
The Steelers gave up some long kick returns early in the game, which is disheartening. The Steelers expect their up-and-coming players to cut their teeth on special teams. The guys who are fighting for a spot on the 53 should be flashing their talent and athleticism here. Hopefully, discipline and practice will lead to better results.
Despite some concerns, I think Steeler Nation has reason to maintain the excitement and enthusiasm sparked by the draft. I, for one, am not turned off in the slightest by Tomlin's grumpiness in the postgame interviews. That's the correct attitude for encouraging the team to develop and improve. If the team manages to improve in pass protection and in the red zone, I'll get even more excited for the 2012 season.