Steelers offense debuts with long drive in loss
PHILADELPHIA — The Steelers showed off far more of coordinator Todd Haley's new offense than might be expected for a preseason opener — maybe too much.
Call it Steelers football, the West Coast version. The Mike Wallace-absent offense was a steady stream of screen passes, short pass routes and ball-control runs as the Steelers possessed the ball for 16½ minutes on their first two drives during a 24-23 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday night.
"We definitely didn't bring all of our cards out. We just came in with a small portion of our playbook and tried to execute that," wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said of Haleyball. "I feel like we did a pretty good job, but as the preseason goes along we'll get better and show more of the playbook. I really like it."
Except for the injuries and the sacks that nastily coincided with all of this possession time.
Haley's offense is designed to keep the ball moving - and keep Ben Roethlisberger upright and healthy. But while Big Ben escaped without injury after leading a game-opening 16-play drive that ended with Shaun Suisham's 46-yard field goal, three Steelers weren't so fortunate. Tight end David Johnson left with his right knee in a cast, a possible season-ending injury. Rookie left tackle Mike Adams also hurt a knee, although less severely, and running back Jonathan Dwyer sprained his left shoulder during a 33-yard run.
Eagles quarterback Michael Vick also was hurt, slamming his left thumb into center Jason Kelce's helmet during the second quarter; X-rays proved negative.
Steelers rookie running back Chris Rainey injured a knee in the first half but came back to turn a short screen pass by Jerrod Johnson into a 57-yard touchdown late in the third.
"That screen he caught, that was the Chris Rainey of Florida," Sanders said. "He's going to be a great asset to the team, a scatback, and he's going to put a lot of pressure on defenses."
Roethlisberger, who likes playing downfield football, was diplomatic while discussing the dink-and-dunk style that didn't show off all the Steelers plan to do offensively.
"We didn't have a lot (of diversity)," he said. "We tried to keep it simple."
The Eagles didn't do much against the Steelers' defensive regulars, in great part because they had the ball so little, and they didn't get on the scoreboard until No. 3 quarterback Nick Foles targeted backup Steelers cornerback Curtis Brown on touchdown passes to Damaris Johnson and Mardy Gilyard on consecutive plays in the third.
Coach Mike Tomlin advocates four preseason games because they allow position battles to be fairly judged and the offense and defense to build continuity. But injuries are the ever-present danger of not-for-real football, especially for a team that is already without five players who are on the physically unable to perform list, including linebacker James Harrison. Defensive end Brett Keisel didn't play due to personal reasons.
Even as the players limped off, the Steelers kept moving the ball, although Adams - starting on the offensive line along with fellow rookie David DeCastro - was partly responsible for 2½ of the three sacks of Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich in the first half.
DeCastro, the first-round pick whose early training camp work has been uneven, looked efficient and effective, although he often had double-team help on blocks. But he didn't need any assistance when he pulled to his left to open a big hole up the middle for Dwyer to power his way to the Eagles' 3.
"It wasn't that impressive. But there was a hole there," said DeCastro, whose play was called "above the line" by Tomlin.
That 10-play drive ended with Leftwich's 2-yard touchdown pass to Sanders - the replacement for the unsigned Wallace - that made it 10-0 early in the second quarter. After that, there were a lot of replacements in the game, including the substitute officials who filled in for the locked-out NFL officials.
"We came out, got our looks, executed our new offense," wide receiver Antonio Brown said. "It was a good chance to see our offense operate at a game level."
With their top downfield threat missing, the Steelers didn't attempt any deep throws, and Roethlisberger's longest completion was 17 yards to Sanders.
"I threw to the guys that were open," Roethlisberger said.
The Eagles trailed 13-0 at the half, but with backups in the game, rallied to win by scoring 24 points in the second half. Alex Henery's 51-yard field goal with 12 seconds left decided it. By then, Roethlisberger and the rest of the starters had been on the shelf for 2½ hours.
"It was a good start for us, but it was just that - a start," Tomlin said. "We didn't finish."
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.