The Pittsburgh Steelers managed to come back from a 13-point deficit to defeat the Philadelphia Eagles 24-16 Thursday night, moving to 2-0 in the preseason. And although it was just an exhibition game, there’s plenty of takeaways to be had from the Steelers’ second preseason game of the year.
1. More starters starting
A good number of Pittsburgh’s starters missed the Hall of Fame Game, and although the team didn’t field a full starting lineup against Philadelphia, a good number of the their top players made their debut on Thursday. Among those making their first start of the season were Chuks Okorafor, Kevin Dotson, Trai Turner, and Rashaad Coward on the offensive line, tight ends Pat Freiermuth and Eric Ebron, wide receiver JuJu Smith Schuster, newcomer Melvin Ingram, and linebacker Devin Bush.
It’s fair to say that most of the players mentioned didn’t have the strongest game, but it was still good to see some more of the team out on the field shaking off the offseason rust.
2. Alex Highsmith is up for the challenge
It’s been hard not to notice the fantastic preseason Steelers’ outside linebacker Alex Highsmith has been having. Tasked with taking over the talented Bud Dupree’s starting spot this year, Highsmith has looked more than up to the challenge. He’s generated pressure on nearly all of his preseason snaps so far. Sure, the majority of those snaps have come against backup linemen, but Highsmith’s play has looked like that of an NFL starter going against second-stringers the entire time. He’s been the brightest spot on the Steelers’ defense this preseason.
3. Jamir Jones will be hard to cut
The Steelers’ depth at EDGE is insanely deep. T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith, and Melvin Ingram are all top-tier defenders who are locks to make the team, while Cassius Marsh and Quincy Roche have both enjoyed a strong camp and preseason. But Jamir Jones has added himself into the conversation. An undrafted free agent in 2020, Jones signed onto the Steelers for 2021 for what seemed to be a “camp body” role. However, second to only Alex Highsmith, Jones has had the best preseason of any Steelers edge rusher. #44 recorded a sack against the Eagles as well as the pressure which led to Justin Layne’s interception. He’s been an active contributor on defense and special teams this preseason, the latter of which may prove more valuable in his search for a roster spot. Jones is facing an uphill battle to make the Steelers’ final roster, but he’s doing everything he possibly can to prove he belongs.
4. Harris’ hurdles
It was another solid showing from rookie running back Najee Harris Thursday night. He had some nice runs and broken tackles, but also two hurdle attempts. It’s great to see him give his all on his rushing attempts, but someone has got to tell him it’s just the preseason. Najee has some impressive hops, but it’s a risk that’s simply not worth taking in an exhibition game. We need you this season, Najee. Please stay on the ground.
5. A tale of two units
The Steelers’ offensive line didn’t look great early Thursday night. The starting line was comprised of Chuks Okorafor, Rashaad Coward, Kendrick Green, Trai Turner, and Joel Haeg, of which only Turner is locked in as a starter for the regular season. Facing a star-studded Eagles defensive line early in the game with the likes of Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave, and Brandon Graham, the Steelers’ offensive line had a tough time in both pass protection and the run game. But in a patchwork state and facing one of the best D-lines in the league, the Steelers’ offensive line problems are hardly reason for worry yet.
However, when the Eagles began to pull their star defensive lineman and the Steelers inserted some of their second unit, most notably Dan Moore and Kevin Dotson, the tide began to turn in Pittsburgh’s favor. It was especially noticeable in the run game, where new line coach Adrian Klemm’s aggressive mentality was blatantly obvious through the play of his linemen. They cleared some massive holes to run through, and it’s fair to say the success of the Steelers’ running backs in the second half was largely due to the play of the offensive line.
6. Let Haskins start (a preseason game)
Dwayne Haskins might have read my earlier article on how he wasn’t the future of the Steelers, because he certainly took it personally Thursday night. In a game where Josh Dobbs looked terrible and Mason Rudolph was especially average, Haskins definitely separated himself from the pack thanks to his impressive play. He looked very comfortable in Matt Canada’s offense, and despite not being known for his mobility, he navigated the pocket well the entire night. His awareness on a free play also led to the team’s lone passing touchdown of the game.
But there’s a lone caveat. Haskins has looked better than his peers this preseason, but he’s been running with the second team the entire time. If he wants to prove he can take the next step, he’ll have to face a starting NFL defense like Rudolph did Thursday night. However, it seems as if Ben Roethlisberger will be starting the Steelers next preseason game, leaving the fourth and final exhibition match as Haskins’ chance to start. Here’s hoping Mike Tomlin decides to start Haskins against the Panthers on August 27th.
7. Struggles with speed
The Steelers weren’t playing their full starting defense Thursday night, but it was still disconcerting to see how they dealt with the speed of the Philadelphia offense. Eagles’ wide receiver Quez Watkins ran past starting corner Cam Sutton for what should have been a easy touchdown (Jalen Hurts overthrew him), and later the entire Steeler defense on a short screen pass he took 79 yards to the house. Watkins is an incredibly fast player, even for the NFL, but he’s still a backup on the Eagles’ depth chart and shouldn’t have given Pittsburgh’s starters fits like he did. The Steelers defense has long had an issue with speed, and it looks like it may continue into 2021.
8. Linebacker help
The defensive backs weren’t the only unit that looked a step slow on Thursday. Top inside linebackers Devin Bush, Robert Spillane, and Ulysses Gilbert all looked lost in coverage and below average in run support against the Eagles. In his first game back from an ACL tear in October of 2020, Bush can be given a mulligan, but the same can’t be said for Spillane and Gilbert, who had bad showings in the Hall of Fame Game and continued the ugly streak against the Eagles.
Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert definitely noticed the team’s deficiencies at the position, and reportedly traded for a former Pro-Bowler in Jaguars’ linebacker Joe Schobert right before the start of the game. While the details of the trade — and Schobert’s contract — are yet to be confirmed, it looks like a good move at face value for the Steelers. Schobert will be an immediate upgrade over every Steelers inside linebacker not named Devin Bush, especially in coverage. The Steelers’ questionable inside linebacker depth got a major upgrade Thursday night.
9. Jordan Berry won’t go away
Pressley Harvin III seemingly stole the starting punter spot, as well as our hearts, during his excellent showing against the Cowboys last week. But the celebration may have been premature. Incumbent starter Jordan Berry got his chance to shine against the Eagles on Thursday and enjoyed an impressive showing himself, landing two punts inside of the 10-yard line. Berry has certainly risen to the level of competition this offseason, and his experience, especially as a holder, might still make him a more attractive option to the Steelers for the regular season. Stay tuned, because the battle of the punters will be a wild one as the preseason continues.
10. The ups and downs of Anthony McFarland
With Kalen Ballage and Benny Snell still nursing injuries, Anthony McFarland got an extended look against the Eagles. There’s still definitely some work to be done regarding his vision, and the game still seems to be moving a bit too fast, but McFarland continued to show improvement. His speed and agility are easy to see, and he has been showing much more fight and power than expected from a speed back. His efforts were rewarded with a touchdown run Thursday night, and possibly a larger role in the Steelers offense moving forward.
11. Bend don’t break
It’s fair to say that the Steelers’ defense hasn’t been great this preseason. But for as many yards as they have surrendered, it’s only resulted in one touchdown against them. The rest of the points scored against them have been in the form of field goals. Chalk this up to incompetence from the opposing team, or simply the poor quality of preseason football, but it will be interesting to see if the trend of “bend don’t break” carries into the regular season for the Steelers defense.
12. Behind enemy lines
On a more personal note here, NFL Gamepass, the site through which I was able to watch the Steelers game, decided to only show the Eagles’ hometown broadcast of the matchup. I gained some knowledge regarding the various products available in Philadelphia thanks to the area-specific commercials — even learning what the official hoagie of the team was. Important stuff. More entertaining was the commentary, which painted everything as a positive for the Eagles. A great pressure by Alex Highsmith resulted in the broadcast team praising Jalen Hurts for throwing away the football before getting sacked. It’s important to listen to new perspectives, but I’ll be honest in saying that I had the game on mute by the second half.
Preseason football isn’t always the greatest to watch, but it was good to see the Steelers back in action. Make sure to share your takeaways below in the comment section, as well as if you agreed or disagreed with the ones above.
Also, don’t forget to stay tuned to Behind the Steel Curtain for all things Pittsburgh Steelers as we get closer to the 2021 regular season.