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Tim Benz: Steelers go 2 for 3 on Mike Tomlin’s checklist in Jacksonville. The miss was a big one

After the Steelers’ 32-25 victory in their first preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks, coach Mike Tomlin identified three specific areas of improvement that he wanted to see in Game 2. They were:

• Sharper two-minute execution on both sides of the ball

• Improved pass protection

• Better run defense

So, was it “mission accomplished” for the Steelers during their 16-15 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Saturday night?

Let’s assess.

• Two-minute execution: Absolutely.

The Steelers defense allowed a 10-yard pass just after the two-minute warning in the second quarter. But then the unit got the ball back on downs after Robert Spillane, Terrell Edmunds and Damontae Kazee all made defensive plays to limit short gains on passes and a scramble by Jags QB Trevor Lawrence.

As a result, the Steelers got the ball on their own 37-yard line. Rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett marched the squad down the field for a touchdown on five plays in 42 seconds. The throws Pickett made included an 18-yard connection with Diontae Johnson, completions of 10 and 24 yards to Pat Freiermuth and an 11-yard touchdown pass to Benny Snell.

Pickett also had a touchdown to Johnson nullified when a James Daniels holding penalty countered a Jacksonville offsides. So the penalties offset, but Pickett hit Snell for the score on the next snap.

“It’s good to see time spent pay off,” Tomlin said of extra two-minute drills in practice this week. “We put time into two-minute football. … It paid dividends in the stadium.”

In the second half, Mason Rudolph threw a touchdown pass to Tyler Snead on the first snap after the two-minute warning to give the Steelers a 16-15 lead. Rudolph completed three passes to Tyler Vaughns prior to that score.

“He breaks tackles. He is slippery,” Rudolph said of Vaughns during a KDKA postgame interview. “I was happy with how we pushed the ball down the field there. The offense did a good job of communication to win the game.”

On the ensuing Jacksonville drive, the Steelers reserve defenders swapped a lot of yards for time, forcing a 57-yard field goal that went well wide right to end the game.

Pass protection: Absolutely not. It was abysmal.

Mitch Trubisky started at quarterback and somehow managed to survive two drives only being sacked once. He needed a few Houdini-esque escapes to make that happen, though.

“I thought Mitch played well. I thought he created and extended some things when there wasn’t much there,” Tomlin said. “But we have got to do a better job of protecting him and having some semblance of a run game if you want a fair evaluation. I’m just being bluntly honest.”

Pickett stood in the face of pressure to deliver some of his throws. And Rudolph was tagged with a safety when he threw the ball away under pressure in the end zone for an intentional grounding penalty.

Kendrick Green got pushed back into the pocket on a few occasions. Daniels had the holding call. Dan Moore was victimized on the Trubisky sack and allowed another pressure earlier in the first quarter.

The offensive line seemed to get better as the game moved along. Some play-action attempts, rollouts and quicker passes helped, too. In the end, the box score only showed one sack by Jacksonville. But the game movie will look less impressive.

• Rush defense: It was better.

Granted, after allowing 6.1 yards per carry against the Seahawks, that wasn’t a very high bar. But it was improved.

The Jags only averaged 3.2 yards on 30 carries. Also, 36 of Jacksonville’s 97 yards were picked up on scrambles and runs by Jaguar quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence and CJ Beathard.

Cameron Heyward and Alex Highsmith were the only primary players on the front-seven depth chart that did not play. Larry Ogunjobi, Myles Jack and Edmunds all made noteworthy tackles in the first two levels of the defense. Edmunds was particularly active throughout the first half.

• • •

Tracking the two-minute possessions looks like it’ll be a week-to-week thing. But the run defense and pass protection questions were present all year in 2021 and very well could be again in 2022.

There at least seems to be hope for improvement, better depth and more quality personnel along the defensive front — especially once the rest of the starters suit up for the regular season.

The pass-blocking issues from the offensive line, though, have been present so far throughout training camp and the first two preseason games from the men who are slated to be the starters in September.

So it’s good to know Trubisky and Pickett are as advertised when it comes to their ability to throw on the run and escape pressure.

Because it looks like they are going to see a lot of it.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.


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