First half observations: Steelers 22, Eagles 14

Preseason football may not count in the standings or mean much of anything, but when you’re tuning in to watch the reigning Super Bowl champs, it’s hard not to get a little fired up about their return. They’re still missing their starting quarterback, the main reason most people would watch a preseason game, but there were plenty of things to make note of in the first half against the Steelers anyway.

The Good

• Fletcher Cox certainly doesn’t look like he rested on his laurels in the offseason after a Super Bowl victory. On just the second play of the game, he blew through Pittsburgh’s offensive line and picked himself up a sack on Landry Jones. Not a bad start.

What was more impressive, however, was the effort on his very next play from scrimmage. On third and long for Pittsburgh, Cox pursued a reception into the next level, wrapping up in order to allow his teammates a moment to make a play. That’s why this guy is an All-Pro, and why the Eagles have invested so much money in him to be the heart of the defense.

(As an aside, it was a little strange to see he and Michael Bennett spend so much time on the field in the first half, particularly when the front seven was so productive. But after last season, the Eagles coaching staff has earned quite a bit of benefit of the doubt.)

• If there was a star of the show in half one of the preseason — I know, I know, who cares?! — it was almost certainly the guys up front on the offensive line. Whether it was Jay Ajayi or Corey Clement, the Eagles running backs had some massive holes to run through, and Nate Sudfeld had all sorts of time to sit back and the pocket and sling the ball.

Perfect example — with the team backed up against their own end zone early in the first half, look how much space Ajayi had to run through on his way to the next level:

They were at the heart of Philadelphia’s success last season, so no surprise they look like they may hit the ground running.

• Speaking of running, excellent first half from Clement in the backfield specifically. The second-year back did a little bit of everything, showing off some nice agility on cuts, downhill speed getting around the edge, and even some nice blocking in the backfield during pass protection assignments.

He’ll be a Super Bowl hero forever, but with more of an opportunity to stretch his wings this year it’s fair to wonder whether he can turn the flashes we’ve seen so far into significant, consistent production.

• Not what I would call the best half in the world from Nate Sudfeld (more on that below), but he used his legs to great effect on an early second-quarter drive, and rookie tight end Dallas Goedert was the beneficiary of his escape act on a 19-yard touchdown.

I’m already getting a little worn down by all the “Goed’s Plan” tweets I’ve seen in a single half of football (I’m sure that won’t get worse as the season goes on!), but outside of a drop in the first quarter, the rookie was as advertised in his first taste of NFL action.

Beyond the connection with Goedert, Sudfeld also unleashed a beautiful throw down the sideline to Shelton Gibson with the clock winding down in the second, bouncing back from a turnover on the previous series to put the Eagles back in the end zone.

The Bad

• If you were hoping Nate Sudfeld would come out and look like a guy who could be the team’s long-term backup — presuming Nick Foles moves on to greener pastures at some point — you weren’t exactly throwing out the idea, but it was a bit of a mixed bag.

On the interception he threw to close out Philadelphia’s first drive, Sudfeld just flat out didn’t recognize the zone coverage Pittsburgh was sitting in, and the turnover was inevitable as a result.

Sudfeld certainly made some good throws to open receivers when he had time to operate, but the vast majority of quarterbacks who make it to this level could make the same claim. He also threw a few hospital balls even with all that protection, putting his teammates in harm’s way for minimal gains or less.

The best thing you could say about his performance is that he had a short memory, and the majority of the throws he made had nice zip and placement on them. Is he able to do that against real competition? That remains to be seen.

• Rasul Douglas did just about everything right on Pittsburgh’s opening touchdown. He played tight coverage on JuJu Smith-Schuster, put himself in position to make a play on a deep throw by Landry Jones… and then just lost his footing when it mattered, allowing the second-year receiver to waltz into the endzone rather easily. Unfortunately, they don’t pay or play members of the secondary to make 90 percent of the play.

Douglas also got beat for a second touchdown right at the end of the first half, and while you have to give credit to Josh Dobbs for a rocket throw on the play, any time you give up multiple touchdowns in a single half, you’re doing something wrong.

Give Douglas a hint of credit, though, because he bailed out an Eagles turnover late in the half by creating one of his own, breaking late on a Josh Dobbs throw to pick up an interception and get the ball back in the hands of the good guys.

• I don’t want to harp on Josh Sweat too hard for the roughing the passer penalty he took late in the second quarter — on top of it being preseason, it also could have been a hold on Pittsburgh — but extending drives with penalties is a killer, particularly when you do it in the red zone.

The Steelers promptly cashed in with a touchdown and a two-point conversion. That’s what preseason is for I suppose.

The Ugly

• This isn’t technically an observation about the game taking place on the field, but man, Donnel Pumphrey missing the opening preseason game is not exactly bolstering his case to make the roster as, at best, the fourth running back on the roster. He’s been receiving decent reviews throughout training camp, sure, but being available to play is pretty important.

• The officials really had to pick up a flag on the first dang play? Come on, man.

• Sidney Jones ended up walking off the field under his own power after spending some time hunched over on the field, which is the good news. The bad news was seeing him down on the field after a bit of a slight collision with Nate Gerry in the secondary.

It’s hard to tell whether it was the collision or a slip right before that happened that aggravated what appeared to be Jones’ left foot, but after a bright start for Jones — he made the game’s first special teams tackle and was around the ball fairly often — it was a heart-in-mouth moment for everybody at the Linc. Thankfully, he appears to be okay.

Worth adding in here — Jones picked up a penalty due to that new NFL helmet rule, and I can’t imagine the players are going to get any happier about it as the season rolls along.


Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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