PITTSBURGH — Tariq Woolen couldn’t help it.
As he was walking onto the field at Acrisure Stadium for the Seahawks’ preseason opener, the rookie cornerback took a look around and allowed himself a brief moment to let it sink in that he was really, finally an NFL football player.
“The first drive, it didn’t even really feel real,’’ Woolen said. “It was like ‘Dang, I’m really here.’’’
And what he admitted were some first-game nerves were undoubtedly in part to blame for a few miscues on the first drive that helped lead to a quick Pittsburgh score in the Steelers’ eventual 32-25 preseason opening victory over the Seahawks on Saturday night.
Woolen got the start at right cornerback with fellow rookie Coby Bryant on the left side with veterans Artie Burns (groin) and Sidney Jones IV (concussion) each sitting out.
On the third play of the first drive, Woolen missed a tackle on Anthony McFarland Jr. that turned into a 24-yard gain (and then 15 more when Cody Barton was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty).
Four plays later, Woolen blew a coverage allowing receiver Gunner Olszewski to break wide open for an easy 13-yard touchdown pass from Mitchell Trubisky. It appeared Woolen was playing man — he followed another receiver to the middle — while the rest of the team was in zone, which meant no one covering the right side of the field.
“Just a busted coverage,’’ Woolen said. “It wasn’t anything new. I see the same look throughout the week and stuff like that. It was just a bust. And there were some early-game jitters.’’
Bryant, likewise, had some welcome-to-the-NFL moments, notably when he was beaten for a 26-yard TD pass from Trubisky to George Pickens that made it 14-0.
Bryant was in position to make a play but didn’t turn his head around, something he freely admitted afterward.
“Great throw, great catch,’’ Bryant said. “I can get my head around faster. But at the end of the day, it’s a great catch.’’
Both seemed to play steadier after the first quarter with Bryant also playing substantially at the nickel corner spot following the first two series.
But coach Pete Carroll said the early plays showed that each still has lots of room for improvement.
“I thought they got beat around a little bit,’’ Carroll said. “They had plays to make, and maybe some jitters and all that. First drive, missed a tackle from Woolen. Those guys can make those plays. Every play that happened to them was plays they’ve been making and they’ll do better. It was a great experience for them,.’’
Both Jones and Burns could be back soon, and for now each would appear to still be in the lead for the starting jobs at the outside cornerback spots.
But Woolen and Bryant also are a big part of Seattle’s future and each hopes Saturday proves to be just a launching pad to far better days to come.
“I felt like I did solid,’’ Bryant said. “There’s more work to be done, obviously. I’m never going to get complacent. Just go back and get coached hard.’’
And for Woolen, a fifth-round choice out of Texas-San Antonio who was a receiver until being moved to cornerback in 2020, Saturday is a night he’ll always remember regardless of the result.
“It was my first (NFL) game,’’ he said. “That’s a milestone in general. Just making it here to the NFL and playing in your first game. It was a pretty cool experience.’’
Mafe comes up big
If Woolen and Bryant showed they have some typical rookie learning to do, second-round choice Boye Mafe looked like a seasoned veteran throughout.
Mafe had two sacks, one forcing a fumble by Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph in the first quarter that the Steelers recovered and another in the fourth quarter when he tackled Kenny Pickett has he tried to roll out on fourth-and-one at the Seattle 45.
“I just took a shot and it paid off,’’ Mafe said of the fourth-down sack of Pickett.
That play gave Seattle the ball at the Steelers 47 with 1:17 left, needing only 10 yards or so to set up a potential winning field goal. Instead, Drew Lock was hit and fumbled on the next play and the Steelers went on to win on a touchdown pass by Pickett — Pittsburgh’s first round choice out of the University of Pittsburgh who was greeted with raucous applause all game — with three seconds left.
Still, that did nothing to mute the excitement over the performance of Mafe.
“A great stop by Boye Mafe on a beautiful play,’’ Carroll said. “He almost spoiled the Kenny Pickett night of nights. We’re really glad to take part in that (Pickett) did a great job and I know their fans had a great time with that. But that was a great play by Mafe and gave us the chance you know to come back and win the football game. …
“I’m really anxious to watch Boye (on film) to see how he did because he had a couple big plays. He might have missed another one. So that’s what we were hoping to see from him.’’
- Jake Curhan started the game at right tackle, but rookie Abraham Lucas then came in in the second quarter with Curhan then playing much of the second half at right guard. Rookie Charles Cross started at left tackle and Carroll said he liked the way the rookie tackles played. “Both the young tackles did a nice job and got some good stuff done,’’ Carroll said. Carroll noted that Seattle ran for 159 yards and 6.1 per carry and said, “Guys in front blocked really well and protected really well.’’
- The blocking helped pave the way for DeeJay Dallas to lead all rushers with 73 yards on 10 carries. Fellow Miami alum Travis Homer was next with 41 yards on four carries. Rookie Ken Walker III got the start at running back with Rashaad Penny out with a groin issue and had 19 yards on five carries and also had one kickoff return for 22 yards.
- Starters who didn’t play were receivers DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, Penny, right guard Gabe Jackson, nose tackle Al Woods, middle linebacker Jordyn Brooks, safeties Quandre Diggs and Jamal Adams and Jones and Burns. Adams, Diggs, Brooks, Metcalf, Lockett and Woods all went through pregame warmups.
- While many starters got the night off, defensive tackle Poona Ford played much of the game. Carroll said it wasn’t really by design but simply because of the numbers at that position with Woods getting the night off. “He just had to suck it up and play for us tonight,’’ Carroll said. “We did not want to have to play that much.’’
- Receiver Cody Thompson left with a shoulder injury, but that was the only apparent injury for the Seahawks.