Here's a look at seven Pittsburgh Steelers at all levels of status and performance from last night's 17-0 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles:
There's always a party going on around the Steelers center, particularly when the interior of the O-line is back together.
But this one may have been a bit more treasured, a bit sweeter, after the return of the heart-and-soul, who watched it nearly come to an end last year with seven surgeries on a troublesome ankle.
Of course, Pouncey had no anxieties about making his return to the field Thursday night.
"Heck no," he said with a huge smile as he dressed. "I've been doing this since sixth grade. I was excited as hell. It was a great time out there. We got some real football going again. It was awesome."
Pouncey agreed that while it was only Game 2 of the preseason schedule, and his team didn't score any points, it was a victory for him.
"In a way, yeah," he said. "Football's a violent sport and injuries happen. That's how I look at things now, man. I'm just happy to be blessed to play another day tomorrow."
Pouncey was finding his feet, so to speak, working in the screen game and getting to the second level.
On one play, the 10th of a 16-play drive, Pouncey shot out and cut the middle linebacker. David DeCastro and Ryan Harris made their blocks and a huge hole developed for Fitzgerald Toussaint's 11-yard run. At that point, the O-line felt like it was getting into a groove.
"It was nice, man," Pouncey said. "I knew that backer wanted to come downhill and hit me, so I hit his legs and let him know next time you're going to have to slow it down a bit. But it was nice getting that long drive. We just have to get better in the red zone and put points on the board."
That was Pouncey's final series as Mike Tomlin replaced him with Cody Wallace in the second quarter. Pouncey was the only starting offensive player substituted out of the first half for the remainder of the game.
Tomlin's obviously taking care of his All-Pro center.
"I told coach last week that I don't want to sit out and he didn't let me play," Pouncey said. "He gave me an opportunity to play this week and it went great, man. Hopefully we just keep trucking forward and things keep going great for us."
"It felt like we picked up right where we left off," said DeCastro. "His play speaks for itself. Just having his character out there, he just brings everybody up. It's the kind of person and player he is, so we try to keep up with his attitude and his mentality. It's why he's so good. He just always has it. Even days when everyone's tired he's always going."
Pouncey heard his name mentioned and walked over to hang out with DeCastro and Ramon Foster. The energy level naturally moved up a notch.
"Dave's motivated me, man. He's first-team All-Pro," Pouncey said.
"He got a spot in the program," Foster needled of DeCastro, who had been on the cover of the evening's game program.
"Dave's stacking 'em up," Pouncey said.
DeCastro smiled even wider as he leaned over to put on his socks. The smile said, "Good times are back."
"We did," he said of the line gaining that old edge. "The preseason is a time to get in shape, so it was nice to get some long drives in there and get that heart going, get you breathing a little bit. We've all got stuff to work on, but it was fun out there tonight."
The offensive line felt its groove coming back, and so did the defensive line.
Because of a three-and-out and an interception return for a touchdown, the Eagles had only three first-quarter offensive snaps. And their first series of the second quarter was stuffed on a third-and-one completion for no gain, courtesy of Lawrence Timmons.
The Eagles did complete a couple of passes for first downs, but until the Steelers' first unit was yanked with 2:26 left in the half the Eagles had gained only 43 yards.
"I thought our group dominated," said Tuitt, the left defensive end. "We did a good job playing as a unit, getting off the field, not letting them carry the ball like Detroit did. I think we're getting better each week."
Tuitt was particularly disruptive.
"Three tackles, could've had sack, eating them up alive, getting better every week," he said with a smile.
Of course, the unit was under duress from its coach this past week. John Mitchell didn't like the way the group had pursued the ball down field against Detroit and he let them know about it in practice.
"We run to the ball here. That's what we do," Tuitt said. "We were playing a no-huddle team that night that plays a lot faster, but we run to the ball here. No excuses."
Tuitt and Cam Heyward were once again the keys Thursday night. Playing the nickel two-man front that's become their base anymore, the Steelers' first unit held the Eagles to 19 rushing yards on six carries.
"We're doing a lot of different things," Tuitt said as he hinted at things to come. "We've got some talented defensive linemen. We want to make some noise with some packages we'll be putting in."
Tomlin likes the way this former Rams back runs the ball, but said he wanted to see more out of him on special teams. And Richardson delivered a perfect form tackle on a punt to open the fourth quarter.
Richardson wasn't given credit for the tackle in the gamebook. Because of the large preseason rosters, offensive and defensive players sometimes wear the same numbers, so this tackle was instead given to the defensive No. 38, Kevin White. But the Bob Marley-like dreads were unmistakable as Richardson trotted off the field.
"I'm thinking of getting my hair cut," Richardson said. "If I make this team, you might see these dreads much shorter."
If he makes the team, Richardson might be able to point to that tackle.
"Making that tackle felt pretty good, I ain't gonna lie," he said. "There's something about special teams that felt good. Everything felt good, but that felt real good."
Richardson knows that as a third or fourth running back, playing special teams will be a requirement. He spent two seasons with the Rams and never played special teams, which may explain why someone who averaged 4.1 yards per 167 carries hasn't played in an NFL game since 2013.
In Thursday's game, Richardson flashed once again with the ball.
However, he did have trouble getting started. A poor block by the tight end cost him a three-yard loss early in the second quarter, but Richardson gained 5, 4, 7, 2 and 2 yards to finish the half. He also gained six yards on a reception.
"I felt good, but I'll watch film tomorrow and see what was really going on, see if I was making the right reads," he said.
Although his stat line of 10 carries for 15 rushing yards was disappointing, the talent is obvious. An eight-yard run was negated when a receiver was penalized for lining up wrong.
"I loved running behind that line once it got rolling," Richardson said. "We've got some dawgs up front."
The rookie with the premium college hardware (Nagurski and Bednarik awards) and the 498 tackles in four seasons at Temple, was so revved up for his first game last week that on the first snap he shot the gap and -- overran the play. He finished with only one tackle against the Lions, but on Thursday night was much more settled and comfortable.
Matakevich entered the game in the fourth quarter and made five tackles as the mack linebacker next to Steven Johnson.
"Yeah, I definitely felt a little more comfortable," Matakevich said. "I got a game under my belt and realized what I had to do for this game."
Matakevich made three stops on his first series, including a tackle for no gain and another for a loss of three on third-and-2.
Tying his shoes with his bright gold Steelers shirt already tucked in, Matakevich refused any credit.
"All these guys have helped me and the coaches put me in situations to succeed," he said. "I did a few good things but I always remember the bad ones. Unfortunately I had a penalty on special teams today. I'll go back and watch it with Coach Danny (Smith), see what I did wrong and see what I can do better."
The penalty was credited in the gamebook to the other No. 46, David Johnson, as an illegal block above the waist that cost the Steelers six yards and gave them poor position for their final drive of the third quarter. It wasn't the way Matakevich wanted to start after his disappointing first game.
"I was a little frustrated," he said of his debut. "But once you watch the film you see things you can do better. The best part about it is learning from these guys and getting better. That's what all these older guys have helped me with. They have that next-play mentality. They don't harp on mistakes. You've got to keep playing. It's not 'oh man I made a mistake' it's 'how am I going to make the next play?' How do you react? That's what these coaches are all about."
And Matakevich clearly reacted well Thursday night.
"Oh, definitely," he said, and with his youthful smile added, "For as much as people tell you what it's going to be like, you don't know until you're out there."
What is it like out there?
"The game just keeps getting faster," he said. "It's incredible to me. It shows me what I have to do.
"This is one of the best organizations in the world," he added. "They have great coaches around here and great coaches who've helped me along the way. I look forward to keep learning along the way."
Matakevich dismissed any notion that playing Philadelphia, after spending four years there in college, was meaningful.
Not Shabazz. The Philadelphia native who grew up with a Steelers fan for a father thought it was flat out cool.
"Everybody," he said when asked about family and friends making the trip. "My big brother and friends were in the crowd. I told my father he could take this one off. I know he had to work late but he already texted me. Mother, everybody watched it together and my phone's been going crazy. Everybody's just happy to see me play against the team we grew up watching."
Everybody's just happy to watch "Hodge" play after he came out of West Chester State undrafted last year. The Steelers like the 6-2, 200-pounder as a big cornerback project and on Thursday night he played three series from halftime to the middle of the fourth quarter without getting beat. Shabazz did allow a few passes to be completed in front of him, but made solid tackles. In fact, he rocked one receiver and finished with four tackles and a pass defensed.
"Felt kind of good tonight. Just trying to get into a groove," he said. "Gave up one of those third downs but we'll get it together."
Is he hearing any feedback about his chances of sticking with the team, even as a member of the practice squad?
"We just lock in and they try to not let us think about tomorrow," he said. "I take it one day at a time, one play at a time. Whatever the coaches need, I try to give them. I try to be as versatile as possible, play special teams, play corner, anything they want."
With a half-full stadium emptying as the second half rolled on, Shabazz wasn't only playing for his family, but his football life. It's a strange dynamic to which Shabazz was oblivious.
"Crazy thing is," he said, "since I was nine years old I've had to focus on the crowd because I literally see nobody but my teammates. If I see the crowd, that's my way of knowing that I'm NOT locked in. If I'm seeing who's in the stands, how full they are, I'm not out there to play football. No disrespect, but my focus isn't there. It's on the sidelines. It's on my teammates."
Trying to get to the starting quarterback after a game is usually impossible unless you get him with a horde of reporters crowding his locker.
But after the crowd had dissipated, and before leaving, the man who threw four interceptions and who could've rightfully dismissed one last interview request, stayed behind to take more grilling.
Yes, Jones agreed he was coming off a very good week of practice, but he's been around long enough to realize that means little on game day.
"Things are going to happen, bad throws are going to happen, bad decisions are going to happen, but if you let that affect the way you play that's a problem," he said. "I'm never going to stop being aggressive. I'm never going to stop throwing it down the field. That's the way I play. Sometimes things like that are going to happen but you've got to bounce back."
Tomlin hinted that most of the interceptions weren't Jones' fault, and that was the general buzz in the locker room. Although Jones would never point fingers, teammates believe Sammie Coates ran the wrong route on the first pick. And, obviously, Cobi Hamilton batted the second interception off his defender's helmet and the deflection was intercepted. The fourth interception was the result of a missed block by the tight end as Jones was hit while throwing.
"Yeah, the turnovers killed us," was all Jones would say. "But it wasn't like we weren't moving the ball up and down the field. Turnovers killed it."
Jones did move the team. He completed 12 of 20 passes for 111 yards, and he still has another game to instill confidence in the coaching staff, otherwise another veteran signal-caller could be added.
"I'll learn from it. I won't back down from anything," Jones said. "I'm going to take the coaching and move on."
Stars come out on offense, and with Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Le'Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams on the bench, the door was open for the player who's been dazzling coaches in practice, the 5-10, 187-pound Rogers.
"Like Coach Tomlin says, 'Make routine plays routinely,'" Rogers said. "I really like that line."
That's exactly what Rogers has been doing in practice, and Thursday he carried it over into the game. Rogers caught four passes for 39 yards against the Eagles. He's gone from possibly making the roster to possibly starting as the third receiver and becoming one of the quarterback's best friends on third down, the slot receiver.
Is that how Rogers is looking at things these days?
"Well, in my mind I'm already on the team," he said. "But as far as people, I believe, yeah, they're starting to see my abilities. Outside of that, I'm just trying to be a consistent player, do what I do in practice, take it from practice into the game. That's really my main focus right now."
All of Rogers' catches were made in the first half, and three of them (for 25 yards) occurred on third downs. He also caught a second-and-19 pass for 14 yards and showed that he clearly has a knack for getting open over the middle.
Does Rogers have a favorite route?
"It's just an option route, but yeah I have a knack for getting open period," he said. "That's the route where I have a lot of choices, a lot of options to choose from and I believe I'll never be stopped on that play."
The confidence is clearly building in Teddy Bridewater's former go-to slot receiver at Louisville. Rogers caught 176 passes (11.5 yards per catch) in college and also returned 29 punts (8.6 avg.). He signed with the Steelers last year as an undrafted free agent and impressed Todd Haley and Ben Roethlisberger before going down with a foot injury in training camp.
Rogers may not have impressed Danny Smith so much, though. On draft day, the special teams coordinator -- after drafting a return man in the seventh round -- was asked about Rogers and said, "Eli's got a pair of Steelers shorts and he thinks he's a Steeler but I have yet to see him in a game. So, he’s a suspect at this time. We’ll see."
On Thursday night, Rogers made a couple of nifty moves on a 17-yard return. He also had a six-yard return in looking like the answer to the Steelers' search for someone to spell Brown, the best receiver in the game, of that duty.
Rogers was asked last night about Smith's comments on draft day.
"I actually liked that," he said. "Nobody knew who I was then, and for him to say that, that was just an extra edge for me to prove to him and my teammates that I'm a player. ... I didn't take anything personally, but I definitely used it like 'OK, yeah, I'm going to show him.'"
What did Smith say to Rogers after his 17-yard return?
"He just told me 'good job,'" Rogers said. "And he told me 'good job' on the fake fair catch, too. He said that was good decision-making. I'm continuing to gain trust from him in that regard on special teams."
And from everyone else, as well.null