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Some lessons we learned from the Steelers preseason opener vs. Seattle

The Steelers fan base learned quite a bit on Saturday night.

Seattle Seahawks v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The Steelers preseason opener against the Seattle Seahawks was clumsy at times, and it was a preseason opener (by definition) so it didn’t always feature things we’ve come to expect, such as game planning or star players. But it had plenty to teach us. I had a few reactions watching it and figured I’d weigh in with my two cents while it’s still fresh in the mind.

Offense looked outstanding

Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp
And the Happiest Man in Pittsburgh Award for preseason week 1 goes to..... Matt Canada.
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Much has been said about the Steelers QB battle, and in the end, all three (Mitchell Trubisky, Mason Rudolph, and Kenny Pickett) looked excellent.

But so did the wide receivers, even though WR1 Diontae Johnson and WR2 Chase Claypool didn’t dress. Nor did the potential WR4, fourth round rookie Calvin Austin III.

And so did the RBs, even though star RB1 Najee Harris and veteran RB2 Benny Snell Jr. didn’t dress.

Frankly, the tight end group looked pretty good too, even with rising star and TE1 Pat Freiermuth and talented TE2 Zach Gentry not on the field.

This is a deeeeep offensive roster. I don’t know how they’re gonna make some of these cuts.

But it wasn’t just Kevin Colbert/Omar Khan who got validated by this performance. Matt Canada’s offense looked pretty good for four quarters too. It’s still preseason (and early at that) but the “Fire Matt Canada” chorus probably just got a tiny bit quieter for a few days. Let’s hope this trend continues.

Bonus (anti-)lesson: I don’t think we learned as much about the O-Line as it seemed.

The offensive line was a mixed bag — run blocking looked pretty good; pass protection did not. I suspect they will get better as they learn to play with each other.

It’s easy to think of OL play as five 1-v-1 matchups, but they operate as a unit much more than most of us realize. Communication and anticipation (of your teammates’ movements) matter on the OL more than any other unit except perhaps the defensive backfield. Given that, the fact that they looked a little out of sorts against Seattle seems totally unremarkable. They have a bunch of new guys in uniform, or old guys in new positions. It might take a couple weeks to really get the unit working, but this will still be an improved squad from last year. They might not be the greatest line in football in 2022, but they’ll stabilize.

Special teams looked pretty good too

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Pittsburgh Steelers
I know this isn’t Sims’ punt return, but it’s the only photo I could find of him from this game.
Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

All-world kicker, Chris Boswell, and second year punter, Pressley Harvin III, didn’t play on Saturday, so I’m not going to even address those realms. But the coverage teams (which are usually composed of roster bubble guys anyway) looked terrific, holding the Seahawks to 3.5 yards per punt return, and 20.2 yards per kickoff return.

Meanwhie, Steven Sims may have played himself onto the roster (or at least into the conversation) with his something-out-of-nothing 38 yard punt return, and 38 yard first half rush. Showing up in the preseason is how a lot of those guys find their helmet; this could be the beginning of something good for Sims.

On that note, how crazy that the Steelers suddenly have four legit kick return stars — Diontae Johnson (2nd team All Pro in 2019); Gunner Olszewski (1st team All Pro in 2020); Calvin Austin (track star and college return stud); and now Sims (who looked every bit the part against Seattle). Remember when the KR/PR battle was between Ryan Switzer and RayRay McCloud? Yikes.

Defense was a mixed bag, but there are asterisks there

Seattle Seahawks v Pittsburgh Steelers
The guy in the sweatshirt? Minkah Fitzpatrick. Let’s remember the missing when we analyze this unit.
Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The D was generally unimpressive against the Seahawks, but of course they were — they had three all-pros and several other high-end starters in street clothes. I want the backups to show up and deliver too, but we have to be honest: this wasn’t really the Steelers defense.

And yet, the team was in complete control when Seattle’s top players were still on the field. The Steelers led 14-0 after one quarter, and were leading 17-3 until 21 seconds before the half. No one likes giving up a late-period scoring drive, but Pittsburgh’s JV mostly held its ground against Seattle’s one’s.

Bonus lesson we didn’t quite learn: Is this the Steelers’ run defense? Or do the missing pieces change everything?

I’m on record as believing that the biggest problem in town last season was Stephon Tuitt’s absence, followed by Tyson Alualu’s. With Alualu returning (at least one more year) and Larry Ogunjobi replacing Tuitt, I’m hoping the push from the front-line (and hence, every other element of the defense) will improve. But if any of those guys (or, heaven-forbid, Cam Heyward) goes down, I don’t have a ton of confidence in the DL I saw against Seattle.

Behind them, ILBs didn’t look great, and Devin Bush in particular is taking a lot of flak this week. But I really think the DL made the difference there. Instead of taking credit for this insight, I’ll refer you to a post-game tweet that gave me pause:

Good point, Joker the Smoker (who knew Steve Miller was a Steelers fan?). Bush has been getting lambasted for this play, but as soon as you lock in on the DE in front of him, it’s hard to blame Bush. Also hard to envision Stephon Tuitt or Brett Keisel getting roller skated like this and cutting Lawrence Timmons out of a play like this.

This is only one play, but it does matter. And honestly, whatever is the cause, the rush D needs to tighten up still. Fingers crossed that the defensive linemen who will actually see the field are stronger than the ones we saw on Saturday.

How did the young guys do? Pretty good.

Seattle Seahawks v Pittsburgh Steelers
Well, now we know what would have happened if Bryant’s Cincinnati Bearcats had made it to the FBS finals against Pickens’ Georgia Bulldogs.
Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

George Pickens looks an awful lot like Michael Irvin to me

Big and fast... cocky and physical (he’s got that Irvin push-off nailed)... outstanding body control... great hands... absolutely impossible to jam at the line... What an incredible steal he’s already turning out to be.

I’ve been a little less fired-up to see Pickens in uniform than some. (Am I still snake-bit by Limas Sweed? Maybe.) And frankly, I’ve been really interested in seeing what Calvin Austin can do. But seeing Pickens do his thing against NFL competition — this guy is impressive.

Kenny Pickett might actually be the real thing too

Yes, he did his damage against backups, but he also did it with backups; and he did it for an entire half, and with the pressure on. (A game winning drive in your first pro snaps? Ridiculous.)

I admit, I was a little disappointed that the Steelers went QB in the first round of the draft, especially after signing Trubisky (who I like and think will be a legit starter too). But KP impressed me Saturday night. Poised, athletic, decisive, and a legit leader. Whatever people mean when they say “that guy’s got ‘it,’ Pickett appeared to have ‘it.’ My money is still on Mitch to start the season but Kenny looks to me like he’s gonna be good.

The Steelers killed it in the draft this year

I just mentioned Pickett (rd.1) and Pickens (rd.2), but DeMarvin Leal (rd.3) looked promising too. For a “tweener” that no one knew what to expect from, it’s not bad to have gotten a couple tackles and a QB hit in the debut.

Connor Heyward looks like a fun swiss-army knife too, and his two-point PAT was a good looking play. I always think it’s funny when people claim that the Steelers make personnel moves for sentimental reasons. That’s what folks said when they used a third round pick on James Conner in 2017. Mike Tomlin smirked at the time and said, “we don’t draft stories; we want players.” And then a year later, Conner was in the Pro Bowl. Now “Cam’s little brother” is on the team too. I have a feeling they didn’t draft him as a story either.

Oddly, Mark Robinson may have impressed me the most — not because he played great (he looked like he was thinking a lot out there, which isn’t ideal), but more because I really figured he’d been one of those “eh, we’ll take a flier on him” kind of guys, and didn’t expect much. But he looked like a hard-running, hard-hitting project to me — five tackles, a sack, and a QB hit (plus, I think he forced a fumble late in the game, though the box scores don’t seem to have that).

Robinson is raw, but if they coach him up, they might have a James Harrison story on their hands in a couple of years — no name kid who suddenly turns the corner and becomes a tornado. That’s how I remember Harrison from 2004: he didn’t play much, but any time he had to replace Joey Porter, he seemed to create chaos. Can Robinson do that? That sure would be fun.

One more quick-hit thought:

Seattle Seahawks v Pittsburgh Steelers
They’re not booing, they’re saying “boo-dolph”
Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

I’d like to see Mason Rudolph traded. Rudolph has a really nice deep ball and a lot of mental toughness; he deserves a shot to play. And the Steelers just don’t seem to need him. I hear the Rams and Jets could suddenly use a reliable and cheap #2, and I saw nothing from Trubisky or Pickett to suggest they can’t be the Steelers one/two. If Chris Oladokun can hold a clipboard, this team should go bank a draft pick for Mason.

Also, I don’t get it why people were booing him the other night? I saw a lot of discussion of that online. Seems pretty low-quality to me. The whole book on Rudolph is pretty sympathetic:

He got tossed into the fire a little too early, replacing a HOFer unexpectedly in 2019, and he played like a guy who wasn’t quite ready for the first few weeks (no surprise there). When he started to get his groove going, he got cheep-shotted twice — first by Earl Thomas against Baltimore, then famously by Myles Garrett, who followed it up by slandering him as a racist (a stain Mason will probably never fully shake, even though no less than Mike Tomlin explicitly said he thinks Garrett was lying). Then the next year, Mason played lights out and nearly beat Garrett’s Browns in the season finale (a Browns team that sand-blasted the Steelers the very next week in the Wild Card game). Finally, in his one 2021 start, in the rain against Detroit, he drove the team into game-winning field goal range twice(!) in overtime, only to see his teammates fumble. Twice!

I don’t want Rudolph to be the Steelers starter, but someone remind me: why do we hate this guy?

Lots of people are sleeping on the Steelers this year, but I think this team looks good. The first preseason game means very little once the rubber hits the road, but there were certainly reasons for optimism at Acrisure (checks spelling) Stadium Saturday night. If this team can keep it together for the first month or two (as they learn how to play together) I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Steelers getting hot midseason and making noise late in the year.

2022 might be a fun kind of Wild West season for this team. I like it. Go Steelers.