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What the Steelers need to show in Preseason Week 1

The most important things to watch for in Saturday’s exhibition.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers OTA Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Preseason games don’t count, so in the long run they don’t really matter, especially the final score. Most NFL fans are aware that the best teams often have losing preseason records and vice versa. But even when the final score doesn’t matter, there’s plenty that does matter. The preseason is the main stage of roster competitions and lots of jobs are won and lost in those few games. This year the Steelers only have three preseason games to gather the information they need to finalize their depth chart and build their 53-man roster.

Fans will also be watching the preseason games to learn what they can about the players on the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers. I talked about what we need to see from the Steelers 2022 NFL Draft class earlier, so I won’t cover any of them in this article.

Beyond the rookie class, what should Steeler fans be looking for in the first preseason game? Let’s dig into it.

Focus on the run game

I doubt I have to tell anyone reading this that the Steelers were bad at running the ball and stopping the run in 2021. The Steelers ended the season 29th in total rushing yards and in yards per rush, and the Steelers defense ranked 32nd, worst in the NFL in both of those categories. That makes a major priority for the 2022 season fixing the run game on both sides of the ball, and thus a major thing to watch for in the preseason.

Watch the offensive line for the Steelers, we need to see that they have taken the challenge to run the ball personally and that they can execute run schemes better than they did last season. We need to see defenders being moved and holes being opened. More than just success, I want to see the mentality in place that they are going to run the ball effectively.

On the defense, watch the defensive line. In 2021 lineman were too often getting pushed off the line and huge holes were being opened. We need to see the return of Tyson Alualu, the addition of Larry Ogunjobi and DeMarvin Leal, and the growth of Isaiahh Loudermilk pay off in terms of winning the line of scrimmage.

If the Steelers can win in the trenches, there will be real hope for the 2022 season to be a good one.

Quarterbacks need to run the offense

The Steelers let it be known for a while that they wanted a different type of quarterback for Matt Canada’s offense than Ben Roethlisberger offered at the end of his career. They brought in two quarterbacks in Mitchell Trubisky and Kenny Pickett this offseason, and if you say you want a certain type of quarterback to run your offense, then go bring in two guys, they better be able to run your offense the way you want.

We need to see the mobility to run plays Ben Roethlisberger couldn’t at 39 years old, and we need to see the quarterbacks making smart choices inside of that offense. This is the first preseason game, it’s the first chance to run the offense where defenders aren’t prohibited from touching quarterbacks. I don’t need to see exciting plays right off the bat, sure I’d love to see explosive plays, but what I need to see is execution and smart football. I’ll take game manager level football from the Steelers quarterbacks this week, just show me you can run the offense against a live defense first.

Some excitement from the play callers

I’m not saying throw your best plays out there now, I’m saying don’t be so vanilla that this time is irrelevant. I want to see Matt Canada throw some crazy plays out on the field. It’s preseason, the end result doesn’t matter, give us ridiculous motion, FB jet sweeps, crazy option plays, non-quarterbacks throwing passes, I want all of it. There’s a good portion of Canada’s playbook that asks players to do unconventional things, if the offense is vanilla, we won’t even know who can execute the less traditional plays.

So give us plenty of craziness and find out who can do what from what alignment. Then use that info to put together plays for the regular season.

On defense? I want to see some flashes of Brian Flores football. I want to see some aggressive blitz looks and various coverages coming out of that look. I want to see safeties blitzing and lineman dropping into shallow zone coverage. I want to see the kind of disguised aggressiveness that was a big part of the Steelers pass rush for decades. I want to see that Blitzburgh is alive and well and the Steelers are real threats to continue their run of leading the league in sacks even with Keith Butler stepping away.

Who will step up in the defensive backfield

The Steelers have a lot of depth and few spots that you could argue are locked down in their secondary. Tracking who is playing where and when will give us a look at who the Steelers have leading the battle for different roles. I’m especially interested to see if they put three safeties on the field at the same time and who is playing in the slot both in nickel and dime defense.

The Steelers have the depth to give some different looks in their secondary but we will have to see if that is their plan or if they intend to find a pecking order and use it in every situation. Either way, it is time for players to step up and earn their spots on the field.

A second running back, please

Along with the offensive line, the Steelers need to see a second running back step up and show they can take some of the load away from Najee Harris. The Steelers have run a primary back most of Mike Tomlin’s career, but while those backs may wrack up a lot of carries, the Steelers total rushes lags behind. Le’Veon Bell led the NFL in rushes in 2017 but the Steelers ranked 15th in team rush attempts. Their highest rushing total since Bell was in 2019, when they had three running backs splitting carries.

If the Steelers are going to be a team that runs more, they will need a second or even third back to step up and show they can bring value to the offense. It doesn’t matter who that back is, all that matters is that someone steps up and shows they can do it.

The bottom line...

The Steelers had some obvious flaws in 2021, and yet they still were able to send Ben Roethlisberger to the playoffs one last time. But for 2022, the Steelers need to show that their efforts to fix the major problems of 2021 are not in vain. We need to see the offensive line come together and execute better. We need to see quarterbacks that can run Matt Canada’s offense, we need to see more rushing options emerge. On defense we need to see the defensive line shutting down the run game and see more than just Cam Heyward playing well game to game.

We need to see that the plan is functioning. We aren’t going to be able to see how well that plan is going to work until the season is underway and real games are being played. But right now? We need to see that the efforts to follow that plan worked, and the Steelers have built a team that can execute the coaches vision for this team.