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Young talent starts the Steelers’ 2018 preseason on the right foot

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In a matchup that didn’t count, youngsters vying for spots on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 53-man roster sure played like it did.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Two Pennsylvania teams squared off at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on Thursday night, but only the team wearing black-and gold looked like the hungry bunch. In a game that was tightly contested throughout most of the first half, the Steelers pulled away from the defending Super Bowl champs, on their way to a convincing 31-14 win in front of an Eagles’ home crowd that, by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, probably wished they had stayed home and saved their money.

Not only did the Steelers beat the Eagles in very convincing fashion, but Philadelphia never really competed with the array of young talent the Steelers showcased in grabbing a victory in their first preseason game. In particular, the performance of the Steelers’ three backup quarterbacks raised lots of eyebrows — not only among the faithful of Steelers Nation, but for anyone watching the game. In preseason games, it’s typical for teams to appear disjointed with their patchwork offenses and frequent substitutions. Backup quarterbacks usually are judged as successful in such contests if they can merely handle their leadership role semi-capably and without totally melting down.

But Landry Jones, Josh Dobbs and Mason Rudolph accomplished far more than the norm during this game, accounting for a total of 275 passing yards, including three deep throws yielding 135 yards and two TDs. While the Eagles’ backup quarterbacks performed about as one might normally expect, each of the Steelers’ young field generals showed they’re capable of moving an offense down the field. I’m proudly biased, of course, but I think anyone watching this game who’s not a Steelers or Eagles fan had to be favorably impressed by the arm strength, accuracy and moxie shown by the three QBs competing for the honor of playing second fiddle to Ben Roethlisberger.

Equally impressive were the youngsters on the receiving ends of those big plays. Pretty much as advertised in advance, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington made huge receptions by out-leaping their defenders. But perhaps more surprisingly, Damoun Patterson, put on a show that surely will prompt many Steelers fans to entertain visions of No. 83 teaming up someday soon with No. 7, perhaps even as the team’s No. 3 wide receiver. Obviously, Patterson faces tough competition in that quest, and he must continue to impress throughout the remainder of the preseason if he’s going to succeed. But it’s difficult to imagine any more impressive coming-out party than the one he just had in the City of Brotherly Love.

Patterson’s 29-yd. TD grab near the end of the first half was one of the more difficult catches you’ll see. Dobbs reared back and uncorked a missile which was just a bit off-target, and as he was breaking past the defender, Patterson was able to pick up the flight of the ball and deftly twist his body around to the opposite side, making an extremely tough catch, maintaining possession and getting his feet down in the end zone. The perfect-10 back-flip he executed in celebration was just icing on the cake.

On the Smith-Schuster TD, his stature, physicality and ability to leave defenders behind after the catch was again on display — the reason why JuJu is becoming a unique weapon in Big Ben’s arsenal. And when Rudolph dialed up the number of his former Oklahoma State teammate James Washington for a 35-yd completion late in the third quarter, we saw the reason why the Steelers selected No. 13 in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft. By all appearances, Washington ranks right up there with JuJu when it comes to using strength and sheer combativeness to come down with the football.

Defensively, there was less to talk about. But interceptions by Cameron Sutton and Coty Sensabaugh were welcome signs that perhaps the Steelers’ secondary will transition from being a liability last season to become a team strength in 2018. While Jon Bostic and Olasunkanmi Adeniyi presented some evidence of their potential to aid the Steelers’ linebacker woes, the play of Tyler Matakevich and Anthony Chickillo suggested that their days with the Steelers might be numbered.

But overall, and especially on the offense, the Steelers have the look of a team that’s absolutely loaded with young, hungry talent. And the training-camp battles for roster spots appear to be especially intense this year — what with young James Conner competing with veterans Stevan Ridley and Fitzgerald Toussaint to back up Le’Veon Bell.

Head Coach Mike Tomlin certainly takes his share of abuse in the comment threads but, based on the way Pittsburgh’s young backups came into Philadelphia and throttled their counterparts on the Eagles, Tomlin clearly has set the right tone in these dress rehearsals for the regular season. Overall, in the aftermath of this convincing win, it was difficult not to feel considerably more positive about where the Black-and-gold stands in their preseason preparations.