Steelers look lively, beating defending champs in preseason opener
PHILADELPHIA — The stars — and some starters — were given the night off against the defending Super Bowl champions, giving the Pittsburgh Steelers backups a chance to handle the workload in the preseason opener at Lincoln Financial Field.
Minus Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and, of course, Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers got enough contributions from the other guys to defeat the likewise star-less Philadelphia Eagles, 31-14, on Thursday night.
Landry Jones threw a 71-yard touchdown pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster, Josh Dobbs directed two touchdown drives, James Conner ran with authority and young receivers James Washington and Damoun Patterson had impressive catches.
The defense, facing the Eagles’ third- and fourth-string quarterbacks, allowed a few big plays in the first half but produced three turnovers and didn’t give up a point in the second half.
“We were trying to play clean football from a technical standpoint, minimize penalties and try to win possession of the ball,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “Take better care of the ball on offense and hunt it on defense. Largely, those things happened throughout the game.”
The Steelers escaped the game with only one notable injury. B.J. Finney, the top backup at center and guard, suffered a quadriceps contusion late in the first half.
Jones, working with three backups on the offensive line to start the game, led a pair of three-and-outs, getting sacked once apiece on the two abbreviated series.
Jones was given a third chance to make something happen, and he did. Three runs by Conner netted 17 yards and gave the Steelers a second down on their 29.
When defensive tackle Elijah Qualls jumped offside, Jones realized he had a free play and looked deep left for Smith-Schuster.
Smith-Schuster got behind Rasul Douglas and jumped above the cornerback to make the catch. Without breaking stride, Smith-Schuster ran untouched into the end zone to complete the 71-yard scoring reception for a 7-0 lead.
Rookie Mason Rudolph connected with college teammate James Washington on a 35-yard completion on another free play in the second half.
“We’ve done it for a number of years,” Tomlin said. “It was good to see the young guys do it. Ben does it routinely. It’s good to see the young guys execute it.”
Despite the two sacks, Jones completed all four of his passes for 83 yards, giving him a perfect 158.3 passer rating.
Conner carried four times for 25 yards and caught a pass for 9 yards.
Dobbs replaced Jones with 31 seconds left in the opening quarter. He was 9 of 13 for 91 yards in the second quarter and directed a pair of touchdown drives, but he also threw an interception that led to the Eagles’ second touchdown.
One play after Cameron Sutton’s interception set up the Steelers at the Eagles 35, Dobbs was intercepted by Douglas, who stepped in front of Patterson, the rookie receiver from Youngstown State.
Dobbs capably ran the two-minute offense, leading the Steelers on a 65-yard drive that started with 1 minute, 58 seconds remaining in the half. Patterson got his revenge against Douglas with 18 seconds left with a twisting catch in coverage in the back of the end zone. Patterson punctuated the touchdown with a backflip, and the Steelers led 22-14 at intermission. Patterson caught six of 10 targets for 77 yards.
“I think I’m making it known that I have the ability to play at this level,” Patterson said. “I still have to get better and attack the game the same way and buy into the system.”
Earlier in the quarter, Dobbs directed a 75-yard touchdown drive that, aided by three penalties against the Eagles, culminated with Fitz Toussaint’s 3-yard run. Toussaint also ran for the 2-point conversion.
“A game like this because it comes up so quick (in the preseason), you don’t really game plan for it,” Dobbs said. “You focus on fundamentals and going out and executing your base offense. I thought I did that.”
Rudolph played the entire second half and completed 7 of 12 attempts for 101 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. He was sacked twice.
Three of the second-half drives ended with Chris Boswell field goals.
“I thought it was a good first step,” Rudolph said.
The Steelers gave up several long-distance plays that were reminiscent of the playoff loss to Jacksonville. On the second series, with the Eagles backed up at their 2, the Steelers allowed a 22-yard run and 26-yard completion. On the run, Morgan Burnett and Artie Burns missed tackles as Jay Ajayi also ran past Jon Bostic.
Tyler Matakevich missed a chance to stop quarterback Nate Sudfeld on his 15-yard touchdown pass to Dallas Goeddert. Also in the second quarter, reserve cornerback Dashaun Phillips was beaten in single coverage for a 63-yard touchdown catch by Shelton Gibson.
But the defense also came through with a couple of turnovers. Coty Sensabaugh, starting in place of cornerback Joe Haden, had an interception in the first quarter, and Sutton added one in the second.
In the second half, rookie linebacker Ola Adeniyi had a strip sack of Joe Callahan, with Keion Adams recovering at the Eagles 16. This set up Boswell’s 32-yard field goal that increased the Steelers’ lead to 25-14.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.