PITTSBURGH - It wasn't a compliment or a vote of confidence. In fact, coming out of coach Andy Reid's mouth, it bordered on criticism.

After the Eagles' sloppy 27-13 preseason loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Heinz Field, Reid was asked to evaluate Jeremy Bloom's return work in the team's first three preseason games.

"He's done just OK," the coach said.

"Just OK" probably isn't good enough for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations, which makes you wonder if the Eagles would consider bringing someone else in for return duties before the Sept. 9 season opener at Green Bay.

Bloom, a second-year player who spent all of last season on injured reserve with a hamstring injury, has returned seven punts for 49 yards in the three exhibition games. That's a 7-yard average, a figure that would have ranked 27th in the NFL a year ago.

The kick returns haven't been any better. Bloom has returned nine for 176 yards, a 19.6-yard average. That figure would have ranked 35th in the league last season. Bloom's longest return has been for 26 yards.

"I think there's been some good and there have been some things I'd like to improve on," Bloom said after Sunday's game. "No scores and no real long returns. It's important that we play better, and it starts with me as the returner, because I'm like the quarterback of the offense to an extent. I always have the ball in my hand. We have a lot of room to improve in our return game."

And not much time to do it. The final preseason game is Thursday night against the New York Jets.

The Eagles' hope has been that Bloom's speed would give their return game a dimension it has sorely lacked in the last two seasons. With Reno Mahe as the primary returner last year, the Eagles' kick-return unit ranked ninth in the NFC and tied for 21st in the NFL, with an average starting field position of the 26.4-yard line. Mahe was 13th in the NFC and 26th in the NFL on kick returns, averaging 22.2 yards.

Those aren't good numbers, but they're better than what Bloom has done in his brief audition. Mahe didn't have enough returns to qualify among the league leaders last season, but his 9.4-yard average would have ranked 14th in the NFL.

So far, Bloom has provided just one glimpse of the electrifying return game he flashed during his two seasons at the University of Colorado, when he had four returns of more than 75 yards for touchdowns. That came in the preseason opener against the Baltimore Ravens when he caught a punt on the run at the 28 and took off down the left sideline for a 19-yard return.

"It'll come," Bloom said. "I just think at this level that the opportunities come, but it's just not as common as it is in college. Look at the guys we've played against - there haven't been a lot of long returns. When it does open up, that's when you have to hit it. That's the most important thing."

Bloom has been nursing a sore toe since the Ravens game, and it continues to bother him. He missed a day of practice last week.

"It's been painful, but I knew that was going to be the case," Bloom said. "You also have to remember that it's the preseason and we have a different group out there all the time. We're rotating every position, so it's never that core group. But that's not an excuse for a lack of production."

It is true, however, that during the preseason the coaching staff is always mixing and matching on special teams, trying to find the right combination for coverage and return teams. It is also true that Reid decided to take a look at wide receiver Greg Lewis as the punt returner and running back Correll Buckhalter as the kick returner during the first half of the Steelers game.

"I wanted to give Greg a look in the punt-return area and Buck as a returner on kickoffs," Reid said. "I wanted to be sure I looked at everybody and when it comes down to decision time that I looked at all my options."

Lewis, who has never returned a punt in a regular-season game, did not embarrass himself. He showed some real courage to not call a fair catch on a second-quarter punt by the Steelers' Daniel Sepulveda, then did a nice job on a 5-yard return to the Pittsburgh 44.

Buckhalter, whose only kickoff return came as a rookie in 2001, also did a decent job with a 23-yard return in the second quarter.

But neither Lewis nor Buckhalter did anything to convince the Eagles that their return problems of a year ago are solved. Bloom hasn't provided that kind of certainty, either.

In their first round of cuts yesterday, the New York Jets released wide receiver Tim Dwight, who has been one of the game's better returners of the last decade. But Dwight is 32 and spent all of training camp on the Jets' physically-unable-to-perform list with a foot injury he suffered late last season.

When this preseason started, Bloom had a job to lose as the Eagles' returner. He hasn't lost it, but with one preseason game left, he hasn't exactly secured it, either.