The Steelers finally got most of their starters on the field, and they certainly impressed everyone against the Titans. Ben Roethlisberger showed why he’s the franchise quarterback, and the defense shut down the Tennessee offense for almost the entire game. Needless to say, these takeaways are overwhelmingly positive, just as the game was. While there were a few negatives, the positives far outweighed them.
As such, here are my eight takeaways from the game.
1. The Steelers have many scheming options on defense
The Steelers showed more different looks this game than they did the entire preseason, and it largely was centered around one man named Matthew Thomas. After two very solid preseason games, Thomas played the whole game, including getting looks with the starters. Therefore, they schemed the defense in different ways than we’ve seen so far in 2018.
The first look was a 4-3 with Thomas, Bostic, and Williams all on the field with Bud Dupree as Left Defensive End. That likely becomes T.J. Watt when he returns but, needless to say, they blitzed Thomas off of the edge on the play, and the result was a tackle for Thomas as he worked back inside on a Derrick Henry run. A key option with this specific look is that, when Watt is back, it’s possible Dupree moves into a hybrid-ILB role and takes the place of either Bostic or WIlliams in the package. It’s a more coverage-skill set in that case, and Thomas allows it all to happen.
The second look is where Vince Williams actually went to the edge and Thomas on the inside. That is taking advantage of not only Thomas’s coverage ability, but also Williams’s pass rushing prowess. Williams got a pressure out of this set and Thomas made a tackle on a screen.
These sets largely worked well, and I would not be against them giving Thomas these reps sprinkled in the regular season. Not only this, but it should be stated that we have not even seen their dollar sets, or their DB heavy sets. I doubt we see them until Week 1, but there is a ton of versatility in this defense.
2. The ILBs were much improved
I want to give a huge shout out to Jon Bostic. This was far and away his best game in a Steelers uniform. He looked much more comfortable out there this week in every phase of his game. His coverage was much better, and he didn’t commit too many huge gaffes — aside from letting Corey Davis get open over the middle because he bit on the play-fake. That was the only negative I saw. He had trouble reading play-action, yet, he also played very well against the run and filled the appropriate lanes at all times. It gives me more confidence in him.
Vince WIlliams had a fantastic game. Not only against the run and in blitzing, but also in coverage. He wasn’t asked to do it as much due to Matthew Thomas getting more of the snaps this week in that area, thus Williams was utilized much more in terms of his strengths.
Matthew Thomas had himself a game. He was always around the football and was making plays on defense and on special teams. His athleticism suggests he could become very valuable. He read a screen perfectly and blanketed most receivers in coverage. On third down, he’ll be a valuable substitution in coverage. He’s still a step late, and clearly sometimes is overthinking things, but he deserves more playing time, and he’ll grow with it.
L.J. Fort deserves reps sprinkled in too. All he did Saturday was make plays. The called-back touchdown, near pressures and plays to stuff the run are only a few examples. He clearly deserves to get some snaps, and any apprehension to play him likely is due strictly to his mental errors.
Matakevich is what he is. He made a nice play against the run, but was beaten in coverage the whole game. He’s not a good inside linebacker and should be the fifth man on the depth chart. All he is — and all that he’ll ever be — is a special teams ace, so lets keep it that way.
3. This Defensive Line is still amazing
Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward are monsters and do not let anyone tell you otherwise. Maybe Tuitt did have two off weeks, I do not know why he did, but every regular season game this guy has been healthy in he dominates. Cam Heyward is a top five defensive end in the NFL. Possibly the most underrated defensive player, Heyward makes his presence felt on every play and continues to make a huge impact.
Javon Hargrave gets far too much hate. He penetrates every play and is a dominate force against the run. He should continue to get more and more snaps. I saw him everywhere vs. Tennessee and I believe he should get more snaps.
L.T. Walton and Tyson Alualu are some of the best depth defensive linemen in the NFL and can give you a spot start if needed. Both might be starting on various other teams, so consider this a very lucky blessing up front.
Even Lavon Hooks deserves some praise. He is a prime Practice Squad (PS) candidate after what he has shown this preseason. He has been consistently clogging up that interior against the 3rd stringers.
4. James Conner looks like a starting RB
Some people will tell me to temper my expectations. To that, I will say a simple word.
James Conner is making me very excited for possible two RB sets this season, and especially for the post-Le’Veon Bell era. Conner looks much like he did at Pitt in his first two seasons. He is far quicker than he was all of last season, and his burst, combined with his power are completely back. You could never doubt his elite balance, but his balance and vision this season are much better than they were last season. He continues to look very good.
However, he has showed more in the receiving game than anyone expected. He had six reception Saturday and ran routes Le’Veon Bell does. He then continued to convert those receptions into big gains, showing he can be more than a complement.
5. Jaylen Samuels is making the team
This man was single-handedly responsible for an entire drive up and down the field. His running looks much improved from the past two weeks as well. He showed good patience and decisiveness. He’s clearly not the athlete some other running backs are, but he has good burst and that’s apparent once he reaches the open field.
He was invaluable in the short passing game as well in the screen game for Mason Rudolph. His run on the touchdown, which was called back, was extremely impressive, especially when he made the defender miss en route to the end zone. We didn’t get to see much of his pass protection, but he showed more than enough to make the team, in my opinion.
6. Terrell Edmunds had a solid showing
To say the least, Edmunds had a rough first two weeks. Last week he was victimized by two tight ends. Not only that, but he missed tackles in run support as well. Against the Eagles, he was a non-factor and didn’t do much of note.
This week, he was around the ball-carrier in coverage and run support and he was blanketing his assignments in man-coverage. The interception was only one example of him doing this, but he was absolutely a stud in man coverage. Perhaps he may have more of an impact this year than I thought, because I was thoroughly impressed.
7. Bud Dupree is who he is
We know who Dupree is. Quite simply, he cannot rush the passer, he’s a mediocre run defender, but he’s terrific in coverage. That’s exactly what happened against the Titans. Dupree was dominated by Lewan, and he lost his leverage quickly every single time.
But Dupree looked good in his limited action at inside linebacker. The Steelers are really exploring that possibility, and Dupree’s blitz up the middle caused Mariota to throw the errant pass that led to Terrell Edmunds’ interception. That role seems to be suiting Dupree much better than being a strict pass-rusher. T.J. Watt is clearly a better pass rusher, as are Ola Adeniyi and Keion Adams. But at least Dupree is better than Anthony Chickillo.
So, hybrid ILB-OLB is the way to go with Dupree.
8. The return game is putrid
When was the last time the Steelers had a return game? They’ve got none this year at all. Fitzgerald Touissant was dead in the water on his lone kickoff return of the day, and he’s always been a rather mediocre return man anyways. JuJu-Smith Schuster had a touchdown return last year against the Browns but, outside of that, he had nothing to write home about.
Cam Sutton was given a chance Sturday, but he fumbled his first attempt. On his second attempt, he only gained about five yards. To say the least, Quadree Henderson wasn’t much better, aside from the fact he didn’t fumble. This is easily the weakest spot on the whole team, and they’ve got no returner on punts or kickoffs. As long as Antonio Brown isn’t the return man; however, I’m fine with that.