The Steelers defeated the Wentz-and-Foles-less Eagles 31-14 in their first preseason game. As you would expect, there were some positives, some pleasant surprises, and some “what was that” moments. Of the notable offensive players, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Vance McDonald were absent from the first exhibition. Roethlisberger and Brown are healthy, while as of August 13th, McDonald has missed ten straight practices. There also doesn’t seem to be any timetable for his return.
My main takeaway from the preseason opener is that James Conner looks much better than last year. Conner received high praise from teammates and beat writers during minicamp and OTAs, claiming him a top performer. This translated to last Thursday’s game, where Conner ran with decisiveness, agility, and strength. I had questioned whether or not Conner could fill in as a three-down replacement if Le’Veon Bell were to miss time, and Conner has me reevaluating this position. I’m not ready to anoint the second year Pitt product “the guy” next year just yet, but he definitely caught me off guard. Conner had three series to open the game, as did the rest of the “ones”. With so many key inactives, the first team skill position starters were Landry Jones, Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Hunter, and Jesse James. Smith-Schuster and Heyward-Bey were the receivers in two-receiver sets, and Hunter came in when utilizing 11 personnel. Jaylen Samuels saw one snap with the starters - which resulted in one target - and then didn’t see the field much until late in the game.
Joshua Dobbs was the second quarterback to lead the offense, ahead of third-round draft pick Mason Rudolph. Dobbs saw the majority of his snaps with Fitzgerald Toussaint at running back, Damoun Patterson, James Washington, and Marcus Tucker at wideout. Patterson was the star of this first preseason game, hauling in a 29-yard touchdown pass while showing off great hands, body control, and a backflip. Patterson finished the game with 6 receptions for 77 yards and 1 touchdown. He’s somebody who has been flashing during training camp practices and is a name to keep an eye on as the preseason progresses. Something else to note that when Dobbs was leading the offense is the plays were tailored to his strengths. There were designed runs and bootlegs called for him, as well as more 11 personnel and shotgun snaps versus 12 and 22 personnel for the other quarterbacks. The Steelers also ran an option play with Dobbs and third-string running back Stevan Ridley in the red zone, something we probably won’t see with Roethlisberger (read: that’s absolutely not happening).
Mason Rudolph got the entire second half to showcase his progression from minicamps through training camp. He looked how you’d expect a rookie coming from an air raid to a “pro-style” offense would look: inconsistent. Rudolph showed poise in the pocket at times, but would follow that up by looking frantic and uncomfortable. His ball placement has some improving to do as well. Playing with a set of linemen who won’t make the team didn’t help his cause, so hopefully we’ll see him getting some run with at least the first set of backups this tonight against Green Bay.
Speaking of the offensive linemen, two notes: The Steelers avoided another big injury when backup guard B.J. Finney went down with what turned out to only be a quad contusion. Pittsburgh is already down starting left guard Ramon Foster for a few more weeks. Third-round rookie Chukwuma Okorafor spent time at both tackle spots. He looked better than expected, particularly against Philadelphia’s starting unit, but there are some things I’ll be looking for as the preseason progresses. He played too tall too often, losing leverage, and was hesitant with his hands at times.
Here’s what I’m looking for against the Packers:
Only Dobbs and Rudolph will be behind center. Will this be when Rudolph moves ahead of Dobbs?
With Damoun Patterson flashing during this process so far, will he earn reps with the ones? His best chance of making the team will be in a special teams role, so we’ll want to see him get reps earlier in those situations as well.
Does James Washington get reps ahead of Justin Hunter?
How does Samuels fit into the offense? Will he have specific plays with the first team? Can he surpass Ridley?
The Steelers made two offensive line signings earlier this week to add depth to a thin position group. I’m interested in seeing where Zach Banner (2017 fourth rounder) and Oni Omoile (2016 undrafted free agent) slot in after just joining the team a few days ago.
Make sure to keep your eyes peeled next week for a review of the Packers preseason tilt, and a what-to-watch-for against the Titans in Week 3. Let me know if there’s anything in particular you guys are interested in about the Steelers and be sure to check out all of the other preseason information coming your way from the DHH team!