Three preseason games have been played by the Pittsburgh Steelers, all three victories for the good guys in Black and Gold. That is great and all, but preseason victories aren't the main objective in these contests. Progress has to be made, both in player development and preparation, plus player evaluations by Kevin Colbert and the coaching staff. Mission accomplished by all accounts.
The Steelers have shown steady improvement throughout their recently completed training camp and the aforementioned three preseason games. Their starting lineups on both sides of the ball have been identified, for the most part. There are still a few spots up for debate; with some of these battles appearing destined to bleed into the regular season, plus what is sure to be a bottom of the roster surprise or two. The next two weeks of camp and the final preseason game against the Carolina Panthers will hopefully provide clarity toward those questions still needing answered. Here are some observations from Saturday night's game.
Stock trending up: Ben Roethlisberger and Pat Freiermuth connection
A franchise QB and a dominant TE go together like peanut butter and jelly. The NFL record books are littered with dominating collaborations. Brady/Gronk, Mahomes/Kelce, Brees/Graham, and Rivers/Gates are just a few from recent memory. A superior tight end is like a security blanket for a QB, as they create instant mismatches across the field. Too big for most corners, too fast for many linebackers to deal with in coverage. They are especially effective in the red zone, where the field shrinks and the passing windows do likewise.
The Steelers are one of the most renowned and celebrated franchises in the NFL, and their all time greats accomplishments are scattered up and down the NFL record books, with incredible representation residing in the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. There isn't much they haven't experienced as a franchise at one time or another. Despite all their achievements, it really is hard to believe that the Steelers have never enjoyed a dominant QB/TE pairing.
The Steelers have had two franchise QBs since their inception in Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger. They both enjoyed incredible connections with some HOF worthy wide receivers, but never a dominant TE. Heath Miller is undoubtedly the best TE in Steelers history, and he was a solid all around player who earned Ben's trust through the years, but he was far from spectacular or dominant. He set a high bar for Steelers tight ends, but nothing unattainable.
If Saturday night's performance is an accurate indicator of things to come, then Roethlisberger has at least found his next Miller level security blanket, but just maybe something very much more.
I could rehash Roethlisberger's age defying performance and perfect QB rating in his first action of the preseason, or his live arm, or how he turned back the clock for a decade by pulling off yet another Big Ben Houdini act to escape pressure and get the ball miraculously to Eric Ebron, who proceed to drop the contested catch. You have to catch that pass after your 39 year old QB makes a Herculean effort to get you the ball. It was contested, but it was catchable. After all, that's what it means to be a professional and make the big bucks.
Maybe Ebron could learn a thing or two from Steelers rookie TE Pat Freiermuth, the guy Ebron is supposedly mentoring. Freiermuth's reputation for having exceptional hands; so strong that he reportedly never dropped a red zone pass during his tenure at Penn State, was on full display against the Detroit Lions. He made two leaping, leaning, twisting TD grabs from Roethlisberger on back to back first quarter drives.
Both catches resembled plays achieved by the Pro Bowl type players I mentioned earlier in this article, and I struggle to recall the last time a Steelers TE was capable of making either reception, if ever. The Ben/Muth connection is only in it's infancy, but sure looks promising.
Stock trending down: Chukwuma Okorafor
I wrote last week in an article that we Steelers fans have to be patient with the offensive line, especially with guys like Trai Turner and Chukwuma Okorafor, who were making their preseason debut after only recently returning to training camp practice. At this stage of the preseason, the competitiveness of the line is more important than the execution. The aggressive mindset being installed by Adrian Klemm takes precedent.
Turner showed tangible improvement against the Lions, appearing far more comfortable with his new surroundings, and just as ornery as advertised. Regrettably, Okorafor did not. Okorafor has always had the physical gifts to play left tackle in the NFL, but he has yet to show the competitiveness and intensity required to do so.
He struggled throughout his snaps against the Lions, both in run blocking and pass protection. He lacks the aggression or initial punch thus far in his career necessary to consistently excel at a level his talent would suggest. He still resembles the passive player we all saw last season, although the rest of his line mates have appeared to buy into Klemm's mission statement completely. His starting spot should be in jeopardy.
Okorafor was credited, if you want to call it that, with having given up 5 QB pressures in his limited time against the Lions. Teammate Dan Moore Jr., the player pressing hard for his starting spot, hasn't given up a QB pressure according to PFF even though he has played the most snaps of any tackle this preseason. Stock definitely down, and maybe out.
Stock trending towards surprisingly making the final roster: Jamir Jones
I keep mentioning Jamir Jones in my weekly articles because he keeps making plays each week, both at camp and in the games. Another preseason game on Saturday against the Lions, another sack on the stat sheet for Jones. I have almost come to expect the big plays and stellar performances, not a question of if but when. However, I definitely don't want to take his achievements for granted, and I would advise the Steelers against that also.
There are multiple teams at the moment, some in the AFC North, who are paying close attention to the Steelers enviable edge depth, at a position of need around the NFL. Jones has been compared by some to former Steelers camp phenomenon Tuzar Skipper, but Jones is a far more complete and well rounded edge performer.
Jones has the size and strength to effectively set the edge against the run, and possesses the athleticism and motor to rush the passer. He regularly makes hustle plays as a result, and he has performed admirably on every special teams unit as needed.
The Steelers will be facing some tough decisions to get down to the final 53 man roster. That's a good problem to have, meaning that the camp roster has enjoyed a plethora of talent. Thankfully there is still another preseason game to be played, and hopefully those tough decisions will be made a little easier. Jones may prove too good to let go.