Let me begin with the bottom line: the Steelers are who we thought (hope) they would be. To be sure they are an unfinished product in many ways, and as Coach Tomlin said in the game's aftermath they didn't get it done in terms of a victory. But don't be fooled by the propaganda. They accomplished pretty much what preseason games are designed to achieve. Details are forthcoming.
Being at this game was not part of my plans. I was driving back to Virginia from Latrobe this past Sunday when my daughter called me from Delaware to inform me that a neighbor had some tickets to the game that she was wanting to unload. Was I interested? Silly question. So last night she, my brother and I found ourselves in Lincoln Financial Stadium for what was for my daughter her first professional football game (I know, I've been a poor father).
The atmosphere. I had never been to the Linc. It's a beautiful facility and a great place to watch a football game. As you might imagine, Steeler Nation was extremely well represented but respectful, even a bit subdued. You don't go into Philadelphia with the idea of taking a place over unless you just like courting violence and acrimony. The respect was reciprocated from best I could tell. Until the game started it was much like a thread that was going on with our BTSCers and the Bleeding Green Nation folk; based, I think on the commonalities of all being Pennsylvanians (or being linked as such). Sort of being family. The situation with Andy Reid may have also had an impact on this as well. There was a moment of silence for Reid's son and family before the game, and when a message was posted from the Reid family thanking the Eagles organization and the city for its support, the crowd responded with a standing ovation and chants of "Andy! Andy!"
But please don't think based upon the preceding that this was some sort of lovefest. Philly fans don't have a reputation for hostility for nothing. Nonetheless, that being said, if I were to characterize what transpired in the portion of the stands that I occupied in one word, that word would be hilarious.
I think that it would be extremely therapeutic if every Steelers fan would be required to take a sabbatical and hang out with Eagles fans for a while. What becomes glaringly obvious is the psychological trauma, dare I say an inferiority complex that comes from having gone over 50 years without a championship. By interacting with these people we would learn a great deal about ourselves. One thing that you learn through comparison is how self assured Steeler Nation is. Don't get me wrong, we have our own pathologies, but they are on a different level and have to do a lot with variations of perfectionism and nit picking over crazy things that truly sane people wouldn't worry about.
But let me be clear, last night Steeler folk weren't worrying over much, besides the health of David Johnson, and a bit of a scare when Chris Rainey got the wind knocked out of him. For the most part when the Eagles fans attacked the Steelers fans we sat there and laughed at them. The elephant in the stadium was 'We got six, how many you got?' Answer: none. This unspoken reality was understood by both sides. And so after ranting against us for a while they eventually, amazingly, turned on their own team, which was even funnier and vastly entertaining. Here are some examples.
A woman about two rows back (in our little corner of the world the women were far more profane than the men) began yelling over and over again; "F--k Roethlisberger! F--k Roethlisberger!" Never 'F--k Pittsburgh' or 'F--k the Steelers'. And she was screaming this when the Steelers were on defense. Ben was nowhere to be seen. Even the bulk of the Eagles fans were shaking their heads and laughing over this.
They turned on Michael Vick early, chanting that he was overpaid (this after exactly one series on offense). Some were actually delighted when he injured his thumb and weren't bashful about saying so. So I thought if was just about Vick. You know, a lot of people have not and will not forgive him. But then they were even more abusive to his replacement, particularly after he threw an interception to a defensive lineman. By the end of the first quarter one guy was pining for the return of Randell Cunningham and Vince Papale.
I was sitting next to an Eagles season ticket holder named Rich. We had a respectful conversation about the two teams and our prospects for the coming season. He had a buzz headed adolescent son who had no filter. He looked at me in my Steelers cap as if he was brought face to face with a Taliban. When David Johnson was writhing on the ground with a mangled knee he looked at me with a satisfied grin that was truly chilling. And just to be sure that there was doubt about how he felt, he expressed how happy he was that Johnson was jacked up. He looked to me for all the world of being the type of person who would go into a high school cafeteria with an AK47, shoot up the place and then shoot himself in the head. Rich and his son, as well as a large number of other Eagles fans left at halftime.
When the Eagles went ahead of the Steelers 21-20 in the fourth quarter, a grown man began taunting a Steelers fan, a kid wearing a Polamalu jersey who looked all of eight years old. As this guy was laughing and doing all kinds of gyrations, this sweet looking blonde hair kid looked up at him and laughed at him.
Now, about the game.
Todd Haley's offense. There was not a wide receiver screen or empty backfield set in sight. For all the conversation about the running game, and indeed there was great emphasis on the run, the first play was a short pass. Obviously, for now, what happens on offense is completely unpredictable and that was a delight. In the first series they were consistently gaining five yards or more both through the air and on the ground on first down. This meant that the options were wide open to attack either on the ground or through the air on the remaining two downs without having to do anything particularly heroic to accomplish the task.
The first series was exactly what you would have wanted from your first unit with limited duty in the first preseason game. They took nine minutes off the clock, got a lot of people involved and experienced a lot of success. There were some negatives. The big one being, of course, the injury to Johnson who had a couple of nice catches coming out of the flat before going down. Mike Adams had his problems with the Eagles pass rush, and all three Steelers quarterbacks were in the all too familiar posture of running for their lives on any pass play that took more than two seconds to develop. And they had to settle for a field goal. But all things considered the concerns about being confused about running this offense was a non issue, at least for this night. The Steelers did not look like a team that was struggling to incorporate both a new system and new personnel.That would be the Eagles. I think there should be some acknowledgement of the general preparation of Tomlin and his staff.
The defense also stepped up smartly and shut the Eagles offensive attack down early which led to the meltdown by the Eagles fans. Things got more interesting as the two teams descended down the depth chart, but make no mistake, the dominance of the Pittsburgh frontliners was such that many Eagles fans went home discouraged after one half of football.
So what about the individual performances?
The running backs performed pretty much as advertised. Isaac Redman was very solid in his limited time. Let me say that I may have been mistaken in my assessment of Jonathan Dwyer. He was very impressive in the short time that he played. I would really be surprised if he was going anywhere. Baron Batch and Chris Rainey got a lot of reps which is appropriate given the fact that this was the first game action for either player. Batch didn't have much room to run initially, but he seemed to get stronger and more effective as the evening wore on and he got acclimated to the game. Rainey also started tentatively, but turned in the most spectacular play of the game with his 53 yard touchdown run. The play electrified the Steelers bench. This kid is obviously both well liked and respected by his teammates. I think there is no problem with writing him in on the 53 man roster; in red ink if you'd like. Clay spelled Batch a bit in the second half and did well doing so, but he clearly wasn't the focal point of attention this night.
Adams and Beachum made their share of rookie mistakes and the offensive line in general hasn't come close to gelling yet. But you get the impression of a group that can move the ball when they need to, especially the run.
Antonio Brown had a couple of high quality catches, but Emmanuel Sanders was the big story at wide receiver. As far as I could tell they never threw at the tight ends all night. Tyler Beiler and Marquis Maze made a little noise, but the second line players and below got precious few opportunities to shine.
For all you Jerrod Johnson fans (or is it sly Charlie Batch haters?), sorry. I fully realize that its early and things could change, but right now the only way Johnson displaces Batch on this roster is if someone hits Charlie with a truck. Yes, Johnson is big, athletic and has a powerful arm. But if you cannot or do not find your receivers, or can't deliver the ball with accuracy then so what? The most frustrating moment of the entire game was at the very end when with a one point deficit and 12 seconds remaining two plays were run with the ball never leaving Johnson's hands. On one of those plays Beiler was open deep but Johnson never bothered to look for him.
Steve McLendon definitely impressed on defense with, among other plays a sack of Vick. Al Woods had a spectacular interception that set up a touchdown. I thought Spence and Sylvester generally played well, Spence particularly was effective in coverage. I was especially impressed with Myron Rolle, both by his size (he wears Mel Blount's old number and the size differential with his other defensive back teammates is reminiscent of Blount as wel)l. He made a number of plays both on defense and special teams. Curtis Brown had a challenging night.
Suisham had a good night kicking, while Butler was inconsistent.
The outcome was, of course, mildly disappointing. I reminded one of the ushers as we were leaving that we would see them again in Pittsburgh later in the fall and that then it would count. He winced.
To top the evening off, as we were walking along the concourse to leave the stadium the Men's 200 meter Final was playing on the television monitors. About a dozen of us, Steelers and Eagles fans stood and watched Usain Bolt win the gold medal running the race in some 19 seconds. A Philadelphia policeman commented that "My car doesn't go that fast."