And, yes, it was only preseason, but, unlike a week earlier, more starters played, especially on defense. Devin Bush, Cam Heyward, Joe Haden and Vince Williams didn’t get any action, but the rest of the starters did.
And they looked good. In-fact, Bud Dupree may have had the best night of his professional football career. He spent his time in the game, playing like a guy who has finally figured out that taking the scenic route to the quarterback isn’t the way to go if you actually want to get to him enough times to earn a really huge payday. Taking a more direct approach, Dupree had two quarterback sacks, three quarterback hits and one pass defensed on a play in-which T.J. Watt, the guy now in charge of the “We Ride” pre-game chant, just barely missed getting a sack of his own. Watt didn’t record any sacks, but he looked dominant enough while engaging with the people trying to block him, it’s safe to assume he would have eventually done something really disruptive had he played a full sixty minutes.
How about that Artie Burns, the 2016 first-round pick that spent his first two-plus seasons regressing so badly, he wasn’t even a factor in the secondary by the end of 2018? Burns started for Haden on Saturday and actually performed really well in pass coverage. He also performed well in run support, forcing a fumble on a first-quarter tackle. Does this mean Burns is back? Hardly. But it may be an encouraging sign for his immediate future, as well as the depth at cornerback.
Not everyone played well. Not everyone tackled well. Not everyone covered well. But most seemed to. Patrick Mahomes didn’t look like the unstoppable force he was the last time Pittsburgh faced him in a Week 2 match-up at Heinz Field. Sure, that Week 2 match-up counted, while this one obviously did not. But how would you feel about the defense today had Mahomes victimized it with a condensed version of his 2018 performance on Saturday night?
The defense recovered three fumbles against the Chiefs on Saturday after recovering one against the Buccaneers in the first preseason game. No, there haven’t been any interceptions so far this summer for a defense that only recorded eight in 2018. But the amount of fumbles the unit is forcing and recovering tells me the emphasis the team has placed on taking the football away may actually be working.
After being a liability a year ago, inside linebacker could be a strength this season, with Mark Barron and Bush adding some lightning to Vince Williams’ thunder. And if he keeps doing that thing where he’s all over the field, Ulysees Gilbert III, the sixth-round pick out of Akron, may actually make the roster and be good enough to warrant playing-time outside of his presumed special teams duties.
And if he doesn’t watch himself, Ola Adeniyi, a 2018 undrafted free agent outside linebacker from Toledo, might be upstaged by Tuzar Skipper, a 2019 undrafted free agent outside linebacker from Toledo.
All-in-all, it was a great performance by Keith Butler’s unit on Saturday. Yes, it was only preseason. Yes, 17-7 scores are common in football games that are played in August (especially when quarterbacks named Chad Henne are still a part of them).
But that doesn’t mean its performance on Saturday wasn’t a preview of bigger and better things to come for the Steelers defense in 2019.