One game into the 2020 NFL season, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have plenty of positives to be excited about. A far different situation than a mere year ago, when the Steelers had to endure a thorough beat down at the hands of the New England Patriots to open the season. The first stage of the Ben Roethlisberger 2020 Comeback Tour took place in front of a national television audience on Monday Night Football in New York City. Ben's return was a smashing success, and the Steelers opened the campaign with a victory. It doesn't get any better than that, Steelers Nation.
There was plenty of other positive developments to get excited about besides Ben's triumphant return. Benny Snell ran the ball like an individual that has no intentions on standing on the sidelines for any length of time. JuJu Smith Schuster looked like the joyful, fun loving young superstar that we had all come to know and love. James Washington showed off his Grandpa strength and determination on a truly impressive touchdown reception. Finally, Chase Claypool confirmed all the hype was justified. It's only one game, but that young man definitely doesn't look like a rookie playing in the first game of his NFL career. Just how good was he Monday night? He was the highest rated rookie receiver in week one according to PFF. All that good news only covers the offensive side of the ball.
The Steelers defense came out in an all out attack mode on the Giants backfield, repeatedly attacking the line of scrimmage. The Steelers defenders responded well to the uber aggressive approach. While the unit as a whole only registered three official sacks on the stat sheet, the Steelers defenders disrupted and dominated the line of scrimmage throughout the game. It was a defensive performance that superstar RB Saquon Barkley will not soon forget.
The Steelers defensive stars did what stars do, they shined. Particularly the front seven, which should come as no surprise. Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are arguably the best tandem in the league. Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt are the best set of edge players in the NFL, and they played like it Monday night. Notice I didn't say edge rushers, because they are outstanding against the run also. Vince Williams was a battering ram against the run, and an effective pass rusher. Fellow inside linebacker Devin Bush utilized his speed and athleticism to it's full effect against both the run and pass.
Enough about the Steelers proven starters, my initial intention in writing this article was to focus on the Steelers young, unproven depth players, particularly as it pertains to the front seven on defense. Throughout the game, I repeatedly found myself pleasantly surprised by the performance of the Steelers young depth pieces.
Before I delve into those performances, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the above the line play throughout the game by defensive tackle Tyson Alualu. He tied up multiple blockers when possible, and penetrated into the backfield often when going one on one. Hopefully the very real pain being felt by those yearning for a nose tackle have been alleviated for the near future.
The aforementioned young backups that impressed me enough to want to write this article were none other than OLB Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, OLB Alex Highsmith, and ILB Robert Spillane. Admittedly, I have a tendency to focus on the linebackers during each defensive play, but I was actually impressed by what I witnessed.
Adeniyi made his presence known the moment he stepped on the field. If he wasn't quickly disposing of a blocker and making a tackle for a loss against the running game, he was applying pressure on Giants QB Daniel Jones, once crawling on his hands and knees trying to trip up the quarterback. Outstanding effort, even if it proved futile in the end. Those kind of efforts don't go unnoticed and will earn him more minutes and the trust of his teammates.
The same could be said about rookie OLB Alex Highsmith. Like Claypool on offense, Highsmith looked like he belonged on the field playing outside linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers. In an effort to clarify that statement I will offer this comparison. The Steelers recently parted ways with a OLB depth piece that enjoyed multiple seasons on the roster, although he played on defense sparingly, and was no threat to make an impact play unless the ball found it's way to the area of the field he was standing in. I will leave it at that.
Highsmith was perpetually in motion, consistently attacking the line of scrimmage and defeating the blocker. One play in particular he pursued the athletic Daniel Jones clear across the field in close pursuit, only to have Jones toss the ball out of bounds at the last second to avoid the sack. Frustrating to be sure, but impressive none the less.
As great as the Dupree/Watt tandem is at the moment, with both guys in the prime of their careers, even they need a breather from time to time to stay energized and playing up to their abilities. The Steelers coaching staff has to feel encouraged by what they saw out of these two youngsters Monday night.
Inside linebacker Robert Spillane was the great unknown heading into the season. One game doesn't provide all the answers, but Spillane was aggressive and always around the ball while maintaining the integrity of each assignment. He played much quicker than many were expecting I feel certain. He appears to have been taking full advantage of his time with the cerebral Vince Williams, a player who knows a thing or two about playing in the NFL with limited athleticism.
I haven't even mentioned the quality play of young defensive linemen Isaiah Buggs and Chris Wormley, or the surprising decision to place Redman Award winner Ulysees Gilbert lll on the inactive list. That will be a discussion point of a future article more than likely.
Every victory only counts as a single number on the right side of the ledger, but some wins just feel more important than others. Monday night's victory gave a glimpse into the future, and the future looks bright.