PITTSBURGH — Big Ben never clocked in. JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner had no sweat to wipe with their terrible towels.
The Steelers had only a handful of frontline players on Heinz Field in Friday night’s 30-28 victory over the Bucs in the preseason opener for both teams.
But darned if it didn’t feel like a good start of something for Bruce Arians in Tampa Bay.
The quarterback Arians has whispered to this offseason was all ears as Jameis Winston made good decisions and even better throws in leading the Bucs to an 81-yard touchdown drive to start the game.
The first-team defense under Todd Bowles played fast and furious, allowing only a field goal after letting quarterback Joshua Dobbs to escape for a 36-yard scramble. Vernon Hargreaves, after getting beat for a 43-yard pass by James Washington, came back with an interception that was negated by offsetting holding penalties.
The first half ended with rookie Matt Gay drilling a 55-yard field goal with all the ease of flicking a paper football. It matched the longest field goal in Heinz Field history.
“I thought we started the game fast,'' Arians said. "Our starters against their backups, it should be good and we got them out of there. I liked the way we fought back. The game is 60 minutes. You never know what’s going to happen.''
In the end, Arians wasn’t happy that some of his players got exposed more than exposure in the loss. The Bucs had 14 penalties for 112 yards.
And who knows what may have happened if Ben Roethlisberger and the best Steelers players had suited up Friday?
Bucco Bruce will dwell on the negatives because that’s what coaches have to do.
But if you’re a Bucs fan looking for signs of hope this season, there was no shortage of it Friday.
Start with Winston.
In his only series of the game, he went 5-of-6 passing for 40 yards, including a 9-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown by Chris Godwin. Winston’s only miss was an arcing bomb to Breshad Perriman that was a few yards too long.
For a quarterback who has been plagued by turnovers, check downs and touchdowns is not a bad way to go.
"I think it’s one of the huge positives,'' Winston said. "The offense is getting our backs exposed to being outside and even working quick so they can get the tricks down and make a play after the pitch. We you give the running back the ball and when you get one in space, it’s their job to get yards and that’s what they do.''
Perhaps just as important, the Bucs were balanced Friday.
A year ago, Tampa Bay was 29th in the NFL in rushing and 31st in rushing average. On the first drive Friday, Peyton Barber rushed three times for 18 yards and Ronald Jones gained 18 yards on four carries.
As a rookie, Jones’ preseason consisted of 22 yards on 28 rushing attempts. What the Bucs showed Friday was a chance to establish a one-two punch in the backfield to rival what other teams in the NFC South have.
“Oh yeah, the punch is going to be nice,'' Jones said. "(Barber) is the big thunder and I’m the slasher. It’s good to have us two in there.
“Especially not playing as much as I did last year it’s definitely good to be out there with the first unit and stuff, getting those reps, getting that chemistry. So I’m excited for this year.''
For a team that has relied too much on Winston doing all the heavy lifting, getting Jones turned around after gaining only 44 yards on 23 rushing attempts last season is paramount.
“It doesn’t surprise me because he’s been doing it every single day,'' Arians said. "To get out there in a game, yeah, it was good. We put the twos out there and he had a couple big runs so I said, “Get him out.’ He’s on schedule to do exactly what we want. Both those backs.''
There still is much for the Bucs to work on.
You wonder if Bowles is fighting an uphill battle to reinvent the defense with the scraps left behind from a unit that allowed 29 points per game. The pass rush was spotty. The secondary is young and inconsistent. Heck, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges threw touchdown passes for the Steelers on Friday.
There were missed tackles, dropped passes and failing to convert on fourth and 1 in Steelers territory.
There were penalties and pressure all night on Ryan Griffin, who was sacked three times and lost a fumble. Griffin’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Tanner Hudson got the Bucs within 30-22 (the two-point conversion failed) halfway through the fourth quarter. Then Dare Ogunbowale scored on a 1-yard run in the final seconds, but Griffin’s pass to Ogunbowale on the two-point conversion was incomplete.
Rookie linebacker Devin White, the No. 5 overall pick, may have summed up the general feeling for Bucs fans Friday.
“It was so damn fun,’’ he said. “I wish I could’ve played longer.’’