There was plenty of intrigue on offense, with a rebuilt line, a host of rookies in the lineup and the most interesting quarterback competition in a generation. Here are 10 observations on their performance from Saturday night, with plenty of video to dissect as we go.
1. The Quarterbacks
Even the most optimistic Steelers fan would have struggled to script a better night for the quarterbacks. Collectively, they went 26-37 for 224 yards with 4 touchdowns and no interceptions. Their yards per pass average was 6.9, which is lower than the Steelers ultimately want, but still represented an increase over Ben Roethlisberger’s mark of 6.2 from last season. Matt Canada purposely designed quick throws to keep the reads simple and develop confidence in his QBs. It worked, as all three seemed poised and decisive.
Canada set the tone on the first play of the night by running four hitches out of a 3x1 set with a seam route from the slot. These “quicks” allowed starter Mitchell Trubisky to select the matchup he liked best. He chose George Pickens, who was isolated on the back side of the trips. Pickens was running a hitch against press coverage, meaning he had little room to create separation. Pickens can separate inside a phone booth, however (young readers, Google “phone booth.” It used to be a thing). He did so here, with a wicked stutter, burst and stop that left him as open as you can be after just four steps:
Later, Mason Rudolph dropped in a single-read throw to Pickens for a touchdown. Rudolph took a three-step drop, looked off the safety then lobbed up a fade ball. The corner was seven yards off of Pickens at the snap, yet Pickens managed to get behind him. Rudolph’s throw was beautifully positioned to the back corner, and Pickens showed elite field awareness by cradling it and getting his second foot down just inside the pylon.
Canada went especially heavy on timing routes for Kenny Pickett. The rookie compiled a great stat line (13-15, 95 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT) and looked comfortable doing so. Mostly, Canada confined him to short, one-read throws where the ball was out of his hand quickly. It was a smart strategy, as it minimized risk and allowed Pickett to execute the concepts with which he is presently most comfortable. His game-winning touchdown throw to Tyler Vaughns with :03 remaining was a great example. Pickett saw soft coverage to the field, then drilled a perfectly timed speed-out off of a three-step drop that hit Vaughns between the numbers. Vaughns did the rest from there:
That throw showcased Pickett’s arm strength and accuracy. It was also one of the deeper balls he threw, even though it traveled just 12 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Canada will have to open up the offense and work more on attacking downfield as the preseason progresses. For a first outing, though, his game plan was smart, and his quarterbacks executed it to near perfection.
2. Hard to handle
I don’t have an official number of yards the Steelers made after contact. Unofficially, it was a lot. Pittsburgh’s backs and receivers ran hard all night. They routinely fell forward or ran through Seattle defenders, or made them miss with decisive cuts, like Anthony McFarland did here on Pittsburgh’s opening drive:
When I was at Steelers’ training camp two weeks ago, McFarland was the best back on the field (Najee Harris was not dressed). He looked faster and stronger than he did his first two seasons in Pittsburgh. That carried over against Seattle. McFarland wasn’t just a shifty guy in space. He ran with power, too, and showed good contact balance, like we see in the clip below. McFarland’s preseason performance has made him a legitimate contender to displace Benny Snell as the No. 2 back in the rotation.
(Side note: for those who don’t already love Pickens, watch him block the corner at the bottom of the screen on this run):
Another back making a bid for that No. 2 role is undrafted rookie Jaylen Warren, who has been one of the phenoms through the first half of training camp. Warren did not disappoint. He ran hard and broke multiple tackles almost every time he touched the ball, including three on this catch-and-run in the 2nd quarter. Warren totaled 64 yards on 10 touches for the game, showing ability as a both a runner and receiver.
Even Pittsburgh’s quarterbacks were hard to handle. Rudolph and Pickett both did a nice job evading pressure. And here, on Pittsburgh’s second series, Trubisky shook off a blitzer and turned a would-be sack into four-yard gain:
Seattle helped by tackling like my son’s pee wee team. They are clearly not in mid-season form in that department. Still, the Steelers showed on Saturday they have players who can run both through and around a defense, even without Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth, Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson. They are clearly more athletic than they were a year ago, the advantages of which are already apparent.
3. Run blocking improvement
The offensive line struggled at times in pass protection. Dan Moore Jr. got beat on a speed rush and there were a couple of communication mistakes that led to pressure. But boy did they look good in the run game. Specifically, on zone runs where the interior players were able to get up to the second level and block linebackers.
Right guard James Daniels was particularly effective. Daniels moves well, understands leverage and blocks to the whistle. He and center Mason Cole seemed to communicate well together and to have a good feel for how to work two-on-two combo blocks. On this one, Daniels (78) dips his left shoulder into the nose tackle to neutralize him long enough to let Cole (61) take over the block. Then Daniels climbs to the backer and bullies him out of the hole:
Here, Daniels and Cole come off their respective double teams simultaneously to get to the backers, while their teammates, Chuks Okorafor (76) and Kendrick Green (53), stay on the down linemen. This is textbook inside zone execution:
The timing and feel the line is developing on these blocks after just a few weeks together is impressive. Kudos to new offensive line coach Pat Meyer, who has his unit looking technically sharper than they did all of last season. I saw Meyer rep the heck out of combo blocks when I was at training camp. Saturday night, his linemen put that drill work to good use, paving the way for 185 rushing yards on 29 carries.
4. The good-hands team
Speaking of new coaches, Frisman Jackson had his receivers looking sharp as well. They blocked hard, ran well with the football after the catch and, in the case of Pickens on his touchdown catch, displayed great situational awareness.
The thing that impressed me most, though, was how well they caught the football with their hands. That’s something this group struggled with last season. Many Pittsburgh receivers, namely Chase Claypool but also Juju Smith-Schuster and Ray Ray McCloud, often trapped the ball with their bodies rather than attacking it. Saturday night, that was not the case.
Take this grab by Pickens along the sideline. Watch him snatch it high and then keep it away from his body until he can spin and shield the ball from the defender. This keeps the defender from punching it out. The maturity Pickens displays by knowing how to cradle the football away from the defender is special for a guy just a few weeks into his professional career.
On this one, Miles Boykin does something similar. With the defender in tight coverage, Boykin grabs the ball with his hands, then keeps it away from his body as the defender wraps him up. Had Boykin let the ball into his chest, before or after the catch, the defender could have knocked it out.
Then there was rookie tight end Conner Heyward, who made a couple of great grabs with his hands. This one came on a crossing route, where Heyward extended to get a beautifully placed ball by Trubisky. Heyward has shown superior ball skills in practice so far. Against Seattle, those skills translated to the game field.
At training camp, I watched the Steelers’ receivers do a warm-up drill where they were catching rugby balls. I wasn’t sure of its purpose at the time, but after watching Saturday night’s game, I think I know. Rugby balls are too big to trap against the body. They are rounder and bouncier than footballs. It’s hard to trap them, and they almost necessitate catching them with the hands. My guess is Jackson used them as a way of enforcing the importance of snatching the ball rather than waiting on it. Saturday night, that training paid off.
5. Slot options
After spending much of the offseason fretting about who will succeed the departed Smith-Schuster and McCloud in the slot, the Steelers suddenly feel ripe with options. Claypool did not play on Saturday night, but there has been talk he will slide inside when he, Pickens and Johnson are on the field together. Pickens has received reps in the slot in training camp as well. Both players would fill the Smith-Schuster role as a bigger slot.
When the Steelers want a quicker player in the McCloud mode, they also have options. The ‘O’ in Gunner Olszewski’s name must stand for “open,” since he found space in Seattle’s secondary all night. His lightning-quick change of direction skills make him a serious run-after-the-catch threat, too. Check out this nifty in-and-out move after Olszewski caught a slant then quickly reversed field and ran away from two Seattle defenders:
If not Olszewski, the Steelers have two other quick slot candidates in Calvin Austin III, who did not play Saturday night, and Stephen Sims, who ripped off a pair of 38-yard runs — one on a punt return and another on a jet sweep. They won’t carry all three players, but are certain to keep one, and quite possibly two. This would give them a host of targets to fill the slot role upon which Canada places great value.
6. A good problem to have
Counting Sims, the Steelers have nine receivers who could make the roster. They also have four running backs (Harris, McFarland, Warren and Snell) plus fullback Derek Watt. At tight end, they have four good players in Freiermuth, Zach Gentry, Kevin Rader and Heyward. That’s 18 candidates for what will likely be 12 or 13 game-day helmets. Who gets cut? There are always tough calls when a team reaches its final decisions. But this season, at the skill positions, the Steelers are going to have to release some guys who look like legitimate NFL players.
7. 1st Down success
With questions still surrounding the effectiveness of the line, the Steelers will have to be good on 1st down to keep them out of 2nd-and-long situations that put them behind the chains and allow defenses to tee off on the guys up front. A typical 1st down efficiency win is a gain of 4+ yards, putting the offense in no worse than 2nd and 6. On Saturday night, the Steelers were excellent in this area.
In Trubisky’s two series, Pittsburgh was 83% efficient on 1st down (5-6) and averaged 8.5 yards per play. Rudolph went just 2-9, but Pickett rebounded to go 9-13. On the night, they were 16-28, which equates to 57%. 55% is the goal most teams set for 1st down efficiency, so the Steelers eclipsed that mark, including a fantastic 14-19 (74%) under Trubisky and Pickett. If they can stay out of 2nd and long situations and allow Canada to call just about anything in his playbook, they’re going to move the football.
8. Offense by committee
It’s preseason, so there will be a lot of guys who show up in the box score. Still, counting the quarterbacks, 20 different Steelers touched the football Saturday night. It won’t be like that when the regular season starts, but I do expect this offense to spread the ball around more than they did a year ago. That offense was Roethlisberger, Harris and Johnson. This one has far more options.
Pickens, Heyward, Warren and Pickett all played extremely well. Running back Master Teague had a solid night too, with 31 yards on 6 carries. Bottom line: the rookies on offense were everything the Steelers could have hoped for in their first live NFL action.
10. The Tomlin effect
This one is unrelated to the offense, but worth noting.
On Thursday, reports indicated the Steelers held one of their toughest, most physical practices of training camp. That’s unusual two days before a game. I’m sure it was not without purpose. Mike Tomlin must have seen something earlier in practice he didn’t like, or must have had some goal in mind for Saturday night that he wanted to emphasize, for him to dial up a physical Thursday. Whatever Tomlin’s intention, it worked. The Steelers came out flying and played inspired football. Nice job by Coach Tomlin to get his young team prepared for their first test of the season.