The Steelers got off to a good start against the Buccaneers on Friday and they never looked back, finishing their first preseason game of the year with a 27-17 victory. But as with any preseason matchup, the individual storylines matter a whole lot more than the final score, meaning there are plenty of takeaways to be had.
1. A general disclaimer
Yes, this is a takeaways article, and I’ll admit that there might be a few overreactions below. But it’s always important to preface articles like this with the disclaimer that preseason matchups do not accurately predict regular season NFL games. The Steelers’ early game success is partially owed to Tampa Bay sitting nearly all of their starters, and Pittsburgh’s subpar showing at DB is partly due to the team sitting their (arguably) two best corners and top four safeties. We got a good picture of what the Steelers will look like in 2023, but that doesn't mean it’s a perfectly clear one.
2. Steeler Nation travels well
Despite the game being played in Tampa Bay, TE Pat Freiermuth’s first quarter catch was met by a loud cheer of MUUUUUTH that was audible on the broadcast. This was at an away game. In the preseason. Don’t ever tell me that the Steelers don’t have the best fanbase in sports.
3. Pickett and Pickens are on the right track
Kenny Pickett and George Pickens didn’t have bad rookie seasons by any means, but there were still aspects of their games that clearly needed improvement in year two. And they certainly showed that improvement on Friday.
I wrote before the game that I wanted to see a more comfortable and effective Pickett this year, and the Steelers QB showed exactly that. He displayed great pocket awareness all while constantly keeping his eyes downfield, delivering strikes all over the field with exceptional accuracy. He looked like a starting-caliber quarterback who’s comfortable in his offense, which is exactly what Steeler fans want to see this season.
Pickens, on the other hand, enjoyed a more electric rookie year than Pickett. But the consensus was that the dynamic contested catch specialist needed to diversify his skillset to truly live up to his potential. He needed to be more than just a vertical threat — instead showing the ability to run shorter routes and create more yards after the catch.
And what did Pickens do with his lone catch on Friday night? Take a slant route 33 yards to the house.
It was only one drive in one preseason game, but the Steelers’ two biggest offensive stars showed all the right improvements in their second year as pros.
4. Some mixed thoughts on the offensive line
I’ll be honest, I was hoping the Steelers’ starting offensive line would look a little more dominant against a bunch of backups at the start of the game, but instead, they had some struggles. Still, it’s worth noting that it took some time for Pat Meyer’s unit to gel and adjust to his coaching style last year, and it could be a similar case this time around. There are some quality names on Pittsburgh’s O-line and that shouldn’t be forgotten just because of one slow start.
However, Kendrick Green’s slow start to the season is no longer a worrying trend and instead a sign that the Steelers need to be looking for better center depth. Green was bulldozed backward on a number of plays and had a terrible snap on another. Hopefully, he gets some snaps at fullback against the Bills next week to have a chance to prove he still belongs on an NFL field.
To round out the O-line analysis, it’s important to mention first-round pick Broderick Jones, who saw his first NFL action against the Bucs. He definitely wasn’t a world-beater but he looked solid overall, especially in pass protection. He struggled late in the game, with Mike Tomlin playing him for a lot of snaps to see what the rookie could do. I’d still call it a promising debut for the young LT, even if he doesn’t look like a Week 1 starter just yet.
5. From a weakness to a strength?
The Steelers ILB room was not great last year. But several new additions to the positional group might’ve finally solved the Steelers’ longtime woes in the middle of the defense. Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander were flying to the football on Friday, with Alexander especially looking like a heat-seeking missile on the field. I legitimately thought he was a defensive back at first with his lean frame and No. 26 jersey, but Alexander had the unmistakable physicality of a quality linebacker. If he can stay healthy, the Steelers might finally have the mix of toughness and athleticism they’ve needed at ILB for the past few seasons.
6. Speed kills
Second-year WR Calvin Austin finally got to show Steeler fans his speed after a season-ending injury sidelined him his rookie year. And he did not disappoint. Austin was the Steelers’ leading rusher and receiver Friday night, making big plays on jet sweeps and in the receiving game, where he scored a big 67-yard touchdown by simply running right past a CB. Austin’s speed clearly translates to the NFL level, showing he might be a serious asset when it comes to keeping defenses honest in the regular season.
Anthony McFarland Jr. also showed some dangerous speed against Tampa Bay. With his skillset he has a real shot at finally claiming the Steelers’ RB3 spot.
Despite the team giving rookie Jordan Byrd most of the reps at returner on Friday, I’d love to see them give both Austin and McFarland some shots there as well this preseason. The ability to contribute on special teams will strengthen McFarland’s roster candidacy, and in Austin’s case, it would be another way to utilize the lightning-fast receiver.
7. “Anyone else have a younger brother?”
I loved this quote from Mike Tomlin regarding rookie Nick Herbig, who showed up in a big way on Friday night with 1.5 sacks. Despite a number of reserve EDGE rushers seeing playing time before him, Nate Herbig’s younger brother shined when given the chance. His energy, speed, and disruption were the best of any Steeler pass-rusher against Tampa Bay by a long shot. Hopefully Herbig can get more reps against better competition in the preseason games to come, proving his lack of length won’t prevent him from being an impactful rotational player this year.
But Nick Herbig (or “Herberg” as the Tampa Bay broadcast kept calling him) wasn’t the only younger brother who showed up against the Bucs. Connor Heyward also had some nice plays, with two catches as a TE and a 5-yard rush from the RB position. His versatility and reliable hands were once again on display, and he should fill the multi-faceted role of FB/RB/TE/H-back well this season. He’s a fun player to watch who could be a valuable member of the Steelers’ offense this season.
8. Hop on the Keeanu Benton hype train
Keeanu Benton didn’t have a perfect game but he still looked like a man against boys more often than not against Tampa Bay’s reserves. The rookie nose tackle absolutely took over the game at times before leaving early with an ankle injury. Draft reports critiqued Benton’s ability to be more than a run-stuffer, but he showed more than enough potential collapsing the pocket. Like Herbig, I’d love to see him get some reps against higher-quality competition later this preseason. Benton has earned a shot with the ones.
9. A disappointing battle
Now for some negatives: the Steelers’ reserve receivers didn’t provide much reason for optimism on Friday. The top four spots are locked in (Diontae Johnson, Pickens, Allen Robinson, and Austin), but there is at least one and possibly even two spots still available on the final roster.
As for the contenders? Cody White had a really tough game with a couple drops including one that resulted in an interception. Hakeem Butler recorded a catch but also a drop. Gunner Olszewski had a quiet day with only one catch. And Miles Boykin, whose special teams prowess makes him the front runner for WR5, offered nothing as a receiver, recording 0 catches in a game where 15 Steelers had receptions. It hasn’t been a very entertaining battle so far at the bottom of the WR depth chart, and it’s shaping up to be a hard decision to choose who makes the final roster for all the wrong reasons.
10. B.T. Potter: Mr. Heart Attack
Chris Boswell didn’t play on Friday, opening the door for rookie B.T. Potter to audition for the role of NFL kicker. It’s worth noting that even though Potter has no chance at unseating Boswell for the starting spot, he’s still a player to watch as the Steelers like to cycle back to kickers they’re familiar with in the case of a Boswell injury. Potter was perfect on the day, but he had an extra point and field goal each where the ball was just barely on the correct side of the goalpost. Hopefully that trend doesn’t pop up again if Potter is entrusted with any game-winners in the regular season.
11. No cutdowns this week
Unlike previous seasons, there won’t be cutdown stages each week leading up to the regular season. The NFL changed the rule this offseason, meaning teams can keep their roster at 90 players throughout the entire preseason. It means five Steelers who played on Friday won’t be losing their jobs this week, but it also means the week before the regular season will be a bloodbath of cuts.
12. Odds and ends
- Kenny Pickett was clearly the best Steelers quarterback on the field. Hopefully any remaining narratives of Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph being the best starting options will finally peter out.
- Darnell Washington has the makings of a dominant down blocker.
- Braden Mann got all of the reps at punter on Friday. He and Pressley Harvin have been in a close camp battle so it was strange to not see the latter get any playing time.
- Elijah Riley currently seems to be the best option at slot corner. He has the demeanor for the position but I still think the Steelers should keep an eye at possible outside additions before the regular season.
- Holcomb, Alexander, and Elandon Roberts all look like possible starters. But Nick Kwiatkoski and Mark Robinson also made some plays on Friday. This linebacker room could be fun.
- Zach Gentry was playing rather late in the game for a veteran. It could be an overreaction but his roster spot may not be as secure as we think.
- The Steelers’ corner depth didn’t look great but Madre Harper made a few nice plays in coverage. He’s a name to keep an eye on.
- I hope CB Duke Dawson’s knee injury isn’t as bad as it looks. I always feel for the roster bubble guys who go down in the preseason.
For a “meaningless” game, Steelers vs. Buccaneers still resulted in plenty to talk about. And in a week, there’ll be more: the Steelers host the Bills in their second preseason game on August 19.
What are your takeaways from Steelers vs. Buccaneers? Agree/disagree with the ones above? Join our Behind The Steel Curtain community and let us know in the comments!