In the first and only preseason game where starters will see substantial playing time, the Steelers accomplished practically everything they set out to do, using stout defense to defeat the Tennessee Titans 16-6 at Heinz Field. Ben Roethlisberger’s lone appearance in the preseason games was solid-but-unspectacular, as he completed 11 of 18 passes for 114 yards. But with Antonio Brown out of the lineup, and JuJu Smith-Schuster serving as Ben’s sole familiar wide receiver on the field, the passing game looked out-of-synch despite an impressive TD pass and catch from No. 7 to WR Justin Hunter near the end of the first quarter.
While it’s often noted that preseason games are meaningless, this performance included some surprising and promising efforts by some depth players who seem determined to make their marks in the NFL. Running back and fifth-round pick Jaylen Samuels was especially impressive in the second half, leading Pittsburgh in rushing with 41 yards on 11 carries, including an 18-yard burst and an apparent TD romp called back by penalty. Samuels also showed his versatility, grabbing a total of four catches for 36 yards as a receiver. He’s definitely got the look of a player with the potential to make important contributions to the Black-and-gold, particularly as he gains more experience.
While he completed only 7 of 11 passes for 65 yards, Mason Rudolph out-dueled Landry Jones and he continues to demonstrate qualities that might someday make him a starting NFL quarterback. Rudolph continues to improve his grasp of the pro game with each opportunity. That’s certainly no knock on Josh Dobbs, who also might develop into a capable NFL quarterback, but Rudolph appears to be improving his pocket awareness and capability to avoid the rush with each successive outing. In certain ways, he looks like he might develop into a type of quarterback similar to Roethlisberger in that he seems to have the ability to create big-play opportunities by moving around in the pocket and buying himself extra time.
On defense, ILB Matthew Thomas had quite an impressive performance, leading the Steelers’ defense with nine tackles including five solo stops. Once again, his special-teams play was quite solid. Thomas also continues to improve as he gets more opportunities to play, and he might be a player who pays big dividends down the road at a position of real need for the Black-and-gold.
As a whole, the Steelers’ defense was surprisingly strong, holding the Titans to only 42 yards rushing on 20 carries for an anemic 2.1-yards-per-carry average. Equally impressive was the defense’s ability to consistently get after the quarterback, notching six sacks and forcing several errant throws, one of which was snatched impressively by rookie first-rounder Terrell Edmunds who returned the ball 30 yards to put the Steelers in scoring position in the second quarter. This marked the first real opportunity Steelers fans have had under game conditions to see the speed and athleticism which Edmunds brings to the Steelers’ secondary. The ability he showed in weaving his way through a host of would-be Tennessee tacklers on the interception return ought to give the faithful of Steelers Nation high hopes that Edmunds will live up to his first-round pedigree by contributing some key splash-plays during the regular season.
On special teams, perhaps the most noteworthy development was Matt Wile’s punting. Wile had three punts for an average of 48.7 yards, including a 58-yard boot in the fourth quarter. In so doing, he outkicked Jordan Berry’s average (on two punts) by the healthy margin of 5.2 yards. Given the crucial role of punting in field position, Wile’s performance surely must have Berry looking over his shoulder. What’s more, this punting competition could very well be decided based on how they match up in the final preseason game against the Carolina Panthers.
While it’s still conceivable that Tyler Matakevich might lose out at the final cut-down, he’s probably done well enough on special teams to compensate for his deficiencies as a backup ILB. But given the stiff competition existing in the linebacker corps, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see a changing of the guard at the depth positions.
In just about every way that a head coach might consider a preseason game successful, this game fits the bill. Big Ben knocked off some rust and emerged unscathed. The starters and high draft picks also knocked off some rust and generally performed well. But most importantly, Mike Tomlin and his coaching staff were able to make a good assessment of the players who deserve to be there when the roster is reduced to 53 men.
The icing on the cake, though, was that a few players who might have been discounted earlier in training camp used this opportunity to make strong cases suggesting they belong in the NFL. They’ve also shown that they’re capable of continuous improvement as the weeks and months of the upcoming regular season unfold. In the wake of this dominant, preseason win, it seems evident we’re looking at a handful of budding, future stars for the Black-and-gold.