Washington Redskins’ players and coaches drew encouragement from Friday night’s 16-7 preseason victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Obviously, preseason performances have to be taken with a grain of salt because teams don’t gameplan for their opponents – meaning the Steelers didn’t watch any film of the Redskins and strategize about how they would attack them, and vice versa. But things often were so bad last season, that in ust this one game, it was easy to see improvements in several areas.

Here are five observations from Washington’s preseason opener.

1.) Offensive line progress – This was as beleaguered a group as any last season, but last night, the Redskins’ front five appeared to have made significant strides. They hit their assignments, they moved well. The first-team unit gave Rex Grossman time to throw, didn’t give up a sack and paved the way for a ground game that averaged 4.3 yards a carry. Good gains came on runs to the left and runs to the right. Right tackle Jammal Brown moved much better than he did a year ago, when he was coming off 2009 hip surgery. There were no holding or false start penalties, which coach Mike Shanahan attributed to strong concentration and discipline.

“We’re a better football team,” Shanahan said when asked about the play of the line. “With the addition of [guard Chris] Chester, [new center] Will Montgomery, just our players being used to the system. You expect it to be that much better. Hopefully, we can keep on improving.”

2.) Defensive line upgrades – Barry Cofield said he felt like a rookie all over again, but the Washington Redskins’ new nose tackle quickly settled in and did a nice job anchoring that 3-4 front. Indications of this: the two sack plays. On the first, Cofield and right end Stephen Bowen opened a lane for inside linebacker London Fletcher to shoot up the middle, and cornerback Kevin Barnes followed and dropped Ben Roethlisberger in the backfield. On the second, Cofield shoved the center to his right and Bowen came around Cofield’s backside on a stunt, racing into the backfield untouched for a sack of Byron Leftwich. Cofield, Bowen and fellow veteran Adam Carriker, along with rookie Jarvis Jenkins clogged running lanes and generated pressure.

“I love them,” linebacker Brian Orakpo said. “Those guys are phenomenal. They’re going to push that pocket and make plays and not only just take up blocks, they’re going to get sacks, they’re going to get pressures and they showed that tonight.”

3.) Options at receiver – Last preseason, the Redskins had Santana Moss, an aged, unmotivated Joey Galloway and a bunch of unproven guys to round out their receiving corps. How different things look now. Moss is still that guy, racking up seven catches for 64 yards and a touchdown Friday night. Grossman also connected with Jabar Gaffney, Anthony Armstrong, Terrence Austin and Donte Stallworth.

Said Grossman, “I knew Santana from last year. He is, in my opinion, a quarterback’s best friend. He understands where the holes are in the defense and he broke some routes off hot knowing that the protection is bad because I wasn’t protected over there. He just has a way of making me feel comfortable. I know [Gaffney] from Florida and it’s exciting to be able to play with him again. Anthony Armstrong’s an explosive wide receiver that’s going to make a bunch of big plays for us. From top to bottom our wise receiving core is really good. I’m very excited about it.”

Don’t discount Austin’s chances of making this team. The second-year UCLA product runs good routes, has good hands and can contribute on special teams.

4.) Tim Hightower is a fit – The Alexandria native runs hard and said he absolutely loves the stretch zone scheme that Mike Shanahan runs. Ryan Torain (still out with a broken hand) has some real competition for that starting job. Another contribution from Hightower comes in the pass protection department. He had some nice blitz pickups, twice sticking linebackers coming up the middle. That was encouraging for the Redskins because while Clinton Portis had dropped off in running production last season, his pass-blocking skills were second to none. Grossman went so far as to say that Hightower’s showing Friday night was on the same level.

“I thought it was great,” Grossman said. “He’s been great from day one with pass protection. He seems like he’s as good as Clinton was, just being able to stick his nose in there and be real tough about it and stop those guys at the line.”

5.) New attitude – There was a different feel to the locker room after the game. Not because it was a win--there were a few last season--but because in their second season under Mike Shanahan the Redskins feel more confident and more comfortable.

Obviously, the players knew that it was only the preseason, and not a full game, but a positive showing against Pittsburgh was big. There was a sense of encouragement, but not surprise. Instead, the Redskins acted as if the performance was what they expected.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Armstrong said. “That’s the way coach Shanahan expects things to be done. Practices have been extremely crisp, and we were able to just flow, and everything’s been going great. It was good to see it happen in a game and for us to just execute. We just need to score more points.”

Left tackle Trent Williams echoed that: “We’re feeling very comfortable. Guys are leaving Redskins Park at 10:30 at night, doing all the extra stuff. We knew that it would pay off.”

Less-than-stellar showings: Obviously Shayne Graham looked nothing like the kicker the Redskins thought they were bringing in to compete with Graham Gano. In camp, Graham has consistently shanked field goal attempts, and Friday night was no different, in the form of two misses. Will he see a second week of preseason action? . . . Washington’s starting cornerbacks appeared to get beat deep a total of three times – DeAngelo Hall twice and Josh Wilson once. Fortunately for them, the Steelers’ quarterbacks badly overthrew their targets on what would have been sure touchdowns. … Rookie wide receiver Leonard Hankerson continues to have the drops, failing to hang on to what could have been a touchdown pass down the middle. . . . Fellow rookie receiver Aldrick Robinson muffed two punt returns when he needed a couple of positives to help distinguish himself at a crowded receiver position.