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Monday, July 4, 2022

Tim Benz: Improving QBs and run game, sluggish defensive moments as Steelers win again in preseason

If we strip away some of the over-analysis and hyper-excitement assigned to Steelers preseason games, a few basic tasks exist for specific players and overall position groups: Build on positive momentum where it exists, and improve on previous shortcomings in limited opportunities.

Painting with a broad brush from the 16-3 Hall of Fame Game victory over the Dallas Cowboys last Thursday, there was a lot more good than bad from the defense. Especially the depth pass rushers and secondary players.

Meanwhile, it was a bland offensive display.

Some of that flip-flopped against the Philadelphia Eagles in a 24-16 win Thursday.

So let’s see what got better, what got worse and where things mainly stayed the same.


Where things got better

The quarterbacks: In the first half, the quarterbacks were a lot like last week. Efficient numbers but not much flash and limited scoring.

Again, like last week, Mason Rudolph hit one big pass — a 33-yarder to Diontae Johnson. Again, like last week, he didn’t lead a touchdown drive.

Rudolph and second-stringer Dwayne Haskins once again combined for first-half numbers that probably looked a little bit better than they felt, with the two passers going 14-for-16 for 120 yards.

No turnovers, though, like Rudolph’s fumble against Dallas. And Haskins did lead a first-half touchdown drive.

Things picked up in the second half. Haskins led two scoring marches and did a nice job exploiting an Eagles offsides to take a shot into the end zone, hitting Anthony Johnson for the team’s second score of the evening.

Haskins wound up 16-for-22 for 161 yards and a 108.3 rating. His numbers would’ve been even better aside from a drop by Zach Gentry in the third quarter and another in the fourth quarter by Tony Brooks-James.

“I really thought he was in command tonight. He did a great job of communicating with people. Going through progressions,” coach Mike Tomlin said.

As for Josh Dobbs, he threw an interception but completed his other five passes for 30 yards.

• The run game: Well, maybe it got a little better.

If you discount minus-8 yards on quarterback runs and a reverse that lost yardage, the run game yielded an average of 4.32 yards on 37 carries.

Plus, Najee Harris had a first-half carry that went for 8 yards, which was negated by a Trai Turner hold.

Hardly the days of Franco and Rocky or shades of the Bus. But better than last week’s 2.5 yards-per-carry average.

That was part of the reason the Steelers held onto the ball for 40:18 as opposed to 30:29 last week.

Diontae Johnson: Chase Claypool had a big catch in Canton. It was Johnson hauling in a 33-yarder from Rudolph in Philadelphia.

Johnson showed some nimble footwork along the sideline after securing that catch.

Most importantly, he caught all three of his targets for 41 yards. No drops. That’s a definite improvement from last year.

Where things got worse

• The first half defense: The first-teamers who did play yielded 16 points and 265 yards during the first half.

Generally speaking, they looked slower than Philly’s offensive crew.

The Eagles’ first two passes were complete to tight ends Zach Ertz for 7 yards and Dallas Goedert for 34 yards. Steelers linebacker Devin Bush appeared to lose coverage on the Goedert catch.

Cam Sutton was beaten for what would’ve been a 98-yard bomb to Quez Watkins. But quarterback Jalen Hurts was too strong with the throw.

Then Watkins torched almost the entire defense on a 79-yard catch-and-run late in the first quarter.

The defense got better in the second half, though, as the Eagles failed to get a first down. Meanwhile, the Steelers managed 19.

Penalties: In all, five penalties for 36 yards in the second preseason game isn’t awful. But Tomlin’s team had only three last week.

And the flags incurred in Philadelphia bogged down drives. Particularly some run-game holds.

“It was self-inflicted wounds. Run-game holding calls kill drives,” Tomlin said. “We had holding calls on our first two drives.

“Penalties were a component of our issues early on. … We are well aware of that, and we have to be better.”

Where things stayed the same

Precision punting: Unless the offensive line improves, punting will be more important than Steelers fans want to envision.

But at least they can envision the punters doing a good job.

After Pressley Harvin III put on a show with three punts inside the 12-yard line last week, Jordan Berry stabbed two punts inside the 10-yard line. His third went for 45 yards. His fourth was a 54-yarder from his own 27 when the Steelers were down 13-0.

It’s assumed Harvin III is going to get the job, but Berry is going to go down swinging.

Well, kicking, I guess.

Jamir Jones: He didn’t register a sack against the Cowboys, but he was a steady problem for the Cowboys backup linemen.

The same could be said for the contest against Philadelphia. Jones sacked Joe Flacco once in the first half and added another quarterback hit on Nick Mullens before Justin Layne’s interception.

Jones totaled four tackles to tie for the team lead with Arthur Maulet.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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