The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Detroit Lions on Saturday night in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score would let on. And although it was just an exhibition game, there’s plenty of takeaways to be had from the Steelers’ third preseason game of the year.
1. Ben is back
Perhaps the biggest news story surrounding the game was Ben Roethlisberger’s preseason debut. Unsurprisingly, offseason rumors had warned of his age, declining arm strength, and injury issues. And while a quarter of preseason football is no indicator of how Roethlisberger will hold up over 17 games, his play against the Lions was incredibly encouraging. Roethlisberger showed off some of his vintage mobility in an impressive extended play that should have resulted in a nice completion to Eric Ebron if the tight end had been able to hang onto the pass (it’s hard to tell if it was a drop or a nice play by the defender). Roethlisberger also showed some arm strength on a 43-yard pass to Diontae Johnson, which admittedly was a floater, but he showed plenty of zip on his two touchdown passes. He legendary pump fake made a return as well, which faked out two cameramen on the broadcast of the game. Needless to say, Roethlisberger looks more than ready for the regular season.
2. Still a work in progress
The Steelers’ revamped offensive line got some time in the first quarter, and despite playing their starters against a defense that was playing a lot of backups, they didn’t look great. In pass protection they kept Roethlisberger upright for the most part, but didn’t provide a lot of push in the run game. Najee Harris simply didn’t have a lot of room to run. This early in the season and still getting used to working together as a unit, it’s far too early to panic, but this offensive line certainly remains a work in progress.
3. Left tackle controversy?
This one may very well be an overreaction, but Chuks Okorafor may not be completely entrenched as a starter this season. Of the offensive line’s struggles Saturday night, Okorafor looked like the worst offender. Meanwhile, rookie tackle Dan Moore continues to impress throughout the preseason. Okorafor will still likely start Week 1, but he may be looking over his shoulder all season. For more on this story I would definitely recommend giving Shannon White’s article on the same subject a read.
4. Rudolph vs. Haskins isn’t the battle we want it to be
I wrote about this before the Eagles game, and Geoffrey Benedict had similar thoughts after Saturday’s matchup. The hype of the battle between Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins has been incredibly overblown. This opinion was greatly strengthened following the Lions game, in which the 39-year-old Roethlisberger operated the starting offense far more smoothly than the supposedly still up-and-coming Rudolph. Meanwhile, Haskins was yet again relegated to leading the second/third-team offense, showing that the Steelers aren’t yet willing to set him up for a bigger role. If Saturday’s game taught us anything, it’s that Roethlisberger is still the best quarterback on this team by a solid margin, and should remain as such until he chooses to retire.
Seen by some as a unneeded pick in the second round of the draft, rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth proved his worth Saturday night. He had only two catches, but both were touchdowns which showcased his athleticism, body control, and strong hands. Perhaps even more important was the chemistry and trust already shown between Freiermuth and Ben Roethlisberger, who will hopefully form a great connection this season. Perhaps cheers of “MUUUTH” will replace those of “HEEATH” at Heinz Field in 2021.
6. A sneaky good game for the pass rush
The Steelers only logged one sack against the Lions, a play in which safety-turned-linebacker Marcus Allen and Redman Award candidate Jamir Jones converged on the quarterback. And while one sack isn’t a lot for the Steeler defense, the pass rush still constantly applied pressure on Lions’ quarterback David Blough, who had to put his mobility to good use the entire game to stay off the ground. Additionally, the never-ending stream of holding calls against the Lions showed how much the Steeler pass-rush was dominating. It would be nice to see the pressures converted to sacks more often, but the Steeler pass rush certainly left its mark Saturday night.
7. Trey Edmunds on the final roster?
At this point it seems as if Najee Harris, Anthony McFarland, and Kalen Ballage are almost locked in as the top three running backs in 2021. However, if the Steelers keep a fourth back like they traditionally would, it’s unclear who it would be. Benny Snell hasn’t even been able to get on the field and Jaylen Samuels hasn’t looked great despite his history in a Matt Canada offense. However, Trey Edmunds has had a quietly solid preseason. His special teams value and ability to play fullback has already been documented, but his success as an H-back in the offense has been a pleasant surprise this year. He recorded a 19-yard catch and run against the Lions on Saturday, showcasing his pass-catching ability. He could be the versatile piece the Steelers decide to keep on their roster this year.
8. A sixth wide receiver?
The Steelers only kept five wide receivers instead of their usual six in 2020, and that same group of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, James Washington, and Ray-Ray McCloud seem like roster locks in 2021. However, there are two wide receivers who have placed themselves into consideration for the possible sixth spot this preseason. The first would be Cody White, who despite failing to record a catch on Saturday, blocked two defenders to spring a long run from McCloud. Combined with his nice showing against the Eagles, White looks to continue to climb up the depth chart. The other would be Matthew Sexton, who notched his second long punt return of the preseason, an impressive 47-yard runback against the Lions. Sexton won’t yet challenge McCloud as a receiver or returner, but his undeniable speed and athleticism should keep him in the roster conversation.
9. Joe Schobert proves his worth
Newly acquired inside linebacker Joe Schobert didn’t have a great night against the Lions, but he looked pretty solid for a player just now learning the defense. He gave up one catch, but recorded a few tackles. However, when taken out of the game, watching his replacement Robert Spillane get targeted again and again in coverage proved how much more reliable Schobert was in the middle of the field. Schobert may not be a premier coverage linebacker, but he certainly showed how much of an upgrade he is for the Steelers defense on Saturday night.
10. Joe Haden is still the Steelers’ best cornerback
There were legitimate worries about Joe Haden’s age heading into 2021, as elite athleticism is an absolute requirement for the cornerback position at the NFL level. But with an impressive diving pass breakup in the first quarter, Haden proved he can still compete at a high level. The same could not be said of cornerbacks James Pierre, Justin Layne, and even Cam Sutton, who still haven’t looked the part of starters while covering backups this preseason. Haden’s play may not be something to worry about in 2021, but there are still plenty of question marks throughout the rest of the cornerback room.
11. Ben’s new security blanket
Back in the days of the “Killer B’s” offense in Pittsburgh, it seemed as if Ben Roethlisberger would always have Le’Veon Bell open as a check down option if the routes downfield didn’t work out. This year, it looks as if Roethlsiberger may build a Bell-like connection with running back Najee Harris. Against the Lions, Harris’ best play came when Roethlisberger dumped the ball of to the rookie, who then took it 46 yards downfield. Besides making an impact in the running game, Najee Harris has the receiving ability to become a security blanket for Ben Roethlisberger in 2021.
12. James Washington can still play
This one isn’t a surprise, as Washington has reportedly enjoyed a fantastic camp with the Steelers this year. However, despite the uncertainty revolving around his possible trade request, it’s become very clear that the fourth-year wide receiver has been seeking a larger role in Pittsburgh’s offense. With Chase Claypool out against the Lions, Washington stepped in an ended up with 3 catches for a solid 24 total yards. His strong hands and ability to be both a possession receiver and a deep threat remain strengths, but it’s unclear if he can unseat any of the other talented weapons in the Steelers’ wide receiver room. However, when one of Claypool, Johnson, or Smith-Schuster inevitably miss some time in the regular season, it’s clear that Washington will be a starting-caliber replacement.
13. Really, NFL Network?
I, as well as countless other Steeler fans, was unable to watch a good portion of the fourth quarter of the game when NFL Network decided to replace it with the pregame show for Raiders vs. Rams. A truly puzzling decision when the new game hadn’t even started yet. I tried to switch to the livestream on NFL Gamepass, but that broadcast had also been switched. In all fairness, the network did cut back for the final minute of the game, but by then the Steelers were simply running out the clock. It ultimately wasn’t a huge deal due to the preseason setting, but it was a frustration none the less. I didn’t write this article until I found time to watch the final seven minutes of the game (which thankfully was part of the Gamepass replay), which is the main reason why this article is somewhat late.
It was great to see most of the Steelers’ starting lineup against the Lions. Make sure to share your takeaways below in the comment section, as well as if you agreed or disagreed with the ones above.
Also, don’t forget to stay tuned to Behind the Steel Curtain for all things Pittsburgh Steelers as we get closer to the 2021 regular season.