In a game that wasn’t anywhere as evenly matched as the scoreboard might suggest, the Steelers defeated the Buffalo Bills 27-15 in Week 2 of the preseason. As always, there are plenty of takeaways to be had.
1. Just how good are the 2023 Steelers?
The Steelers looked really, really good on Saturday night. And unlike the Tampa Bay game, Pittsburgh wasn’t matched up against a bunch of backups, but instead, one of the better starting rosters in the entire NFL. Against the Bills, Kenny Pickett looked like a legitimate franchise quarterback with a deep group of playmakers surrounding him. The starting offensive line looked dominant, as did the defense and even special teams. There’s some hype building around the team that feels well-deserved, leaving myself and many other Steeler fans wondering if it’s all just too good to be true.
The only “pump the brakes” thought is that the Bills were hilariously rusty in the first half of the game, possibly resulting in the Steelers looking better than they really are. At the end of the day, both can be true — the Steelers played great, and the Bills played poorly. It’s inarguable that this Steelers team is much improved from last year’s, and I’m done coming up with excuses to not be confident that Pittsburgh will be a playoff team this time around.
2. A special moment for Damar Hamlin
It’s worth taking a step back from the stats and performances of Saturday’s game to recognize the miracle that was Damar Hamlin playing NFL football again less than a year after he unexpectedly collapsed and nearly lost his life in Week 17 of the 2022-23 season. The former Pitt standout returned home and recorded 3 tackles against Pittsburgh as well as a jersey swap with former teammate Kenny Pickett. It was a special moment and a reminder of the things that matter so much more than football.
3. This is a special special teams
It was noted in BTSC’s Week 2 preseason preview that it would be key to see Pittsburgh’s starting specialists really shine against the Bills. And they definitely did, hopefully turning the tide of mediocre special teams that has plagued the Steelers for the past several years.
Chris Boswell was perfect on his field goal and extra point attempts on the night, while Pressley Harvin landed all five of his punts inside of the 20-yard line while also showing off some good hang time. Most exciting was new punt returner Calvin Austin, who continued to show off his game-changing speed with a 54-yard runback. Steeler fans were likely also pleased with Austin’s sure hands on his fair catch, as muff issues have been prevalent with Steelers returners of past years.
Other aspects of Pittsburgh’s special teams also looked great. Miles Boykin beautifully downed a punt late in the game, showing off his value as a gunner. Elijah Riley continues to up his roster value as a strong tackler on kick coverage. And Miles Killebrew and the punt coverage team applied pressure all game, with Killebrew even getting his hands on a punt at one point. The Steelers’ starting offense and defense played lights-out on Saturday night, and the special teams unit made sure to get in on the fun.
4. This is an OLB room for the ages
It’s hard not to get excited about what the Steelers’ OLB room could be this season. There are stars at the top but there’s also strong depth, with a nice mix of veteran and young players. TJ Watt continued to be his disruptive self in his limited playing time against the Bills, while Alex Highsmith recorded a sack (that wasn’t really a sack but he tackled the quarterback in the backfield, OK?) and even a pass breakup guarding All-Pro receiver Stefon Diggs (remember what I said about this Steelers team being too good to be true?).
On top of that, Markus Golden finally got to show Steeler fans what he’s capable of, taking over a drive with two big hustle plays to prevent yards-after-catch as well as drawing a big holding call. And rookie phenom Nick Herbig continues to deliver with pressure after pressure, including a strip sack that was preceded by some of the best bend around the edge fans could hope for.
Needless to say, this group of Pittsburgh pass-rushers could be something special this season.
5. Could Najee Harris be on the hot seat?
As Jaylen Warren sped by on his electric 62-yard touchdown run, a thought passed through my head, and I’m pretty certain I wasn’t alone in thinking it: Najee Harris couldn’t do that. While Warren has been productive and dynamic this preseason, Harris has looked merely fine, and at times a little less than that. And the trend dates back to last year. Despite Harris’ undeniable strengths (his tough running and receiving ability was a big part of the Steelers’ late-season resurgence last year), it’s hard not to wonder if Warren has earned the right to chip away at more of Harris’ snap count this season.
However, Harris’ lack of playing time this season has seemingly confirmed the opposite: the former first-rounder has already secured the RB1 gig and the lion’s share of the Steelers’ total carries this year. Still, if Harris looks indecisive and lethargic as a runner this year as he did to start 2022, it might just be a matter of time before Warren climbs to the top of the RB depth chart himself.
6. Slot corner: A great battle that no one expected
Slot corner was and is considered the biggest weakness on the Steelers’ defense, but the two defenders fighting for the starting slot position, Elijah Riley and Chandon Sullivan, both played great against the Bills. Much like ILB, there may be more strengths than we thought to what was considered a glaring weakness before.
Riley has his aforementioned special teams prowess, but he also made plays in the slot, nabbing an interception off of a tipped ball as well as swatting down a pass attempt against the Bills. His physicality as a run defender also continues to be an asset. Sullivan also stepped up, recording an impressive interception as well as some first-team reps. Don’t forget that Patrick Peterson may rotate into the slot as well at some point this season.
The slot corner room may have a higher ceiling than we thought. It’ll be interesting to watch who wins the battle between Sullivan and Riley if they continue to play the way they did on Saturday.
7. A tale of two O-lines
As mentioned in point #1, the Steelers’ starting offense looked great against Buffalo, in both the run and the pass game. The second-string O-line was a different story, however. There was no push in the run game after the starters came out, and pass protection took a major hit. Everyone knows it already, but it’s worth mentioning again that Kendrick Green and Le’Raven Clark are simply not NFL-caliber linemen.
If there’s any saving grace for the Steelers’ backup unit, it’s that the team’s two best reserve linemen, Broderick Jones and Nate Herbig, didn’t see the field much if at all against the Bills. Mike Tomlin pulled Jones early and Herbig didn’t play due to injury. With Jones backing up the tackle positions and Herbig the interior, the Steelers’ O-line still projects to be strong and deep in 2023.
8. Gunner Olszewski could earn a roster spot
Gunner Olszewski led the Steelers in catches with an impressive five, three ahead of second place. If it isn’t obvious already, Olszewski is a well-liked target for the Steelers quarterback room, and his production has shown that. Olszewski doesn’t offer a ton as a receiver, but he is fairly reliable and a popular accomplice in Matt Canada’s jet sweeps. I think he’s lost his chance at a starting returner spot following his muff issues last year, but he can still provide depth and experience there if Calvin Austin ever goes down. Long story short, I have a sneaking suspicion he’s going to make the 53-man roster this season.
9. Odds and ends
- The starting defensive line looked great anchoring against the run. It’s a notable improvement over past seasons.
- Diontae Johnson had a key downfield block to spring Jaylen Warren’s big touchdown run. It’s worth shouting out, especially for a receiver not known for his physicality.
- Anthony McFarland’s quickness is legit and he seems far and away the best candidate for RB3. Hopefully, the Steelers give him more chances to prove himself as a special teams contributor in their final preseason game.
- The starting secondary didn’t look terrible against Buffalo, but they didn’t look great, either. I’m certainly not panicking, but I definitely hope Joey Porter Jr. can become a starting-caliber cornerback sooner than later in case Patrick Peterson loses a step this year.
- Speaking of JPJ, it was great to see him secure a pick, even if it was an easy one, in his first NFL game after low interception numbers were one of his biggest draft knocks.
- Sure, Dalton Kincaid shredded the Steelers’ defense on Saturday, but it’s hardly a rare occurrence for the rookie tight end. Just watch his tape from Utah — he did that to everyone. I’m not too worried yet about Cole Holcomb’s coverage chops, and he did end up tipping the pass that Elijah Riley picked off, after all.
- Safety Trenton Thompson is not afraid of laying down big hits. I respect it, but I wish he’d play with a bit more refinement to avoid injury and be more effective in coverage. Still, it’s enough to make him a leading Redman Award hopeful in a weak field of candidates this year.
- Darnell Washington is a giant human and a DPI magnet. Even when he’s not catching passes, he can still be a great red-zone target.
- The Steelers’ second-quarter touchdown drive (and repeated red zone struggles) provided an in-game version of seven shots. After their performance, it’s not really surprising that the offense has lost the drill more often than not in training camp this year.
- Besides Thompson’s injury scare (he eventually returned to the game), it looked like Pittsburgh didn’t have any injuries of note vs. Buffalo. Steelers win and leave with a clean bill of health, does it get any better than that?
For a “meaningless” game, Steelers vs. Bills still resulted in plenty to talk about. And after a short week, there will be more: Pittsburgh takes on Atlanta in their preseason finale on Thursday, August 24.
What are your takeaways from Steelers vs. Bills? Agree/disagree with the ones above? Join our Behind The Steel Curtain community and let us know in the comments!