The third preseason game of the year is often thought of as a tuneup game, a dress rehearsal for how the starting offense and defense will perform once the regular season begins.
However, the Pittsburgh Steelers had better hope the way their first team performed on Thursday night isn't a reflection of the final product they've been working on all summer.
The Steelers offense was hoping to match wits with the Eagles' speedy no-huddle orchestrated by head coach Chip Kelly. Unfortunately, their attempts fell flat.
Through nearly three quarters of football, Ben Roethlisberger's offense was held scoreless—and not because Philadelphia put on a defensive clinic.
The struggles began with the quarterback. Roethlisberger was inaccurate, appearing hesitant, especially in the first half. Attempts to build a rhythm with second-year wideout Markus Wheaton resulted only in incompletions. Tight end Heath Miller led all Steelers receivers at the half with 22 yards.
|Ben Roethlisberger vs. Eagles: 1st Half and Total|
Ultimately, Roethlisberger went into halftime with just eight completions on 17 attempts for 60 yards, an interception and a sack. The Steelers had only 96 total yards of offense at the half.
Roethlisberger told The Associated Press that "the communication is a little tougher" when trying to run the no-huddle on the road, and that was evident in his team's 31-21 loss. It becomes even more difficult when the Steelers' No. 2 receiver is Wheaton, who caught only six passes for 64 yards in his rookie season and missed time with a nagging finger injury.
For all of Roethlisberger's attempts to get him involved, Wheaton had no first-half receptions. Wheaton needs to be a reliable target for Roethlisberger this year, with coverage likely shifting heavily to Antonio Brown—the NFL's second-leading receiver last season.
Wheaton's margin for error has shrunk. He and Roethlisberger not being on the same page could lead to trouble this year.
Over the past two seasons, the Steelers have struggled to find paydirt in the red zone. In both 2012 and 2013, Team Rankings indicates the Steelers scored touchdowns in less than 56 percent of their red-zone appearances.
Against the Eagles, the Steelers starters didn't even reach the red zone once.
The closest they got in the first half (the Eagles' 28-yard line) resulted in a missed 46-yard Shaun Suisham field-goal attempt.
When the starters did score a touchdown—a 27-yard end-zone grab by Miller—with four minutes left in the third quarter and against the Eagles' second-team defense, they again were just outside the red zone.
That third quarter did prove more fruitful for Roethlisberger, who ended his day with 15 completions on 24 attempts for 157 yards, a touchdown, an interception and two sacks.
However, that provides cold comfort—the Steelers won't be seeing second-team defenses in two weeks' time. That Roethlisberger could not engineer sustained scoring drives is a sign of trouble.
Roethlisberger and Co. weren't aided by their defense. What was once a hallmark of the Steelers looked largely ineffectual against the Eagles' high-tempo offense. Philadelphia had 17 points and 251 yards of offense by halftime and expanded its lead to 24-0 in the third quarter, with the second team facing off against Pittsburgh's starting defense.
Missed tackles and the inability to stop the run were only the beginning.
There were the many penalties—13 in all by the Steelers—there was the exhausting first touchdown drive for the Eagles, which spanned 11 plays and 80 yards in just over three minutes.
There was the fact that Eagles backup quarterback Mark Sanchez and the second-string offense could move the ball better against the Steelers' starting defense than Pittsburgh's offensive starters could against the Eagles' first-team defense.
Last week's standout, rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier, was picked on repeatedly in coverage. He was tasked with shadowing tight ends Zach Ertz and his backup, Trey Burton. Each was targeted twice and caught both passes thrown their way.
Most notably, the Steelers could not get any pressure on either Eagles starting quarterback Nick Foles or Sanchez—they had zero sacks against the first and second teams on the night.
Troy Polamalu's interception was the lone defensive highlight for the Steelers starters.
Ultimately, the Steelers starters from Roethlisberger on down were flat and disappointing in the most important preseason game of the year.
Hopefully, the team simply didn't prepare specifically for the Eagles and this was not a representation of what this offense and defense will look like this season.
After all, Roethlisberger did play well in the first two preseason games, with nine completions on 13 attempts for 174 yards and two touchdowns. The defense looked intimidating and fast in those two contests, particularly the starters.
Perhaps Thursday's poor showing was a result of a bad day and nothing more.
Otherwise, if this was a preview of the true Steelers of 2014, it's going to be hard for the team to regain relevance in the AFC North—let alone be seen as Super Bowl contenders.
It sure looked as though the Steelers need to go back to the drawing board on offense and defense. Unfortunately, there's not much time left to fine-tune these problems.
Over the previous two games, the Steelers looked like they were trending sharply upward. That took a turn for the worse on Thursday in Philadelphia. Too much went wrong.
They have two weeks to get it right.