A 24-0 final score. A 3-0 preseason record. That’s a lot of zeros in the opponents’ column. The Steelers continued their preseason hot streak against the Atlanta Falcons with a shutout win, and as always, there are plenty of takeaways to be had.
1. A perfect preseason
Could we have asked for a better preseason? When the Steelers’ starters were in, the team looked dominant in all three phases. And better yet, there were no major injuries. Stars like TJ Watt continued to shine while up-and-comers like Kenny Pickett and George Pickens have shown meteoric development. But it hasn’t just been the starters — this Steelers roster looks to be one of the deepest ones in years. Omar Khan and Andy Weidl have built a roster that can withstand some of the inevitable missed games from starters during the regular season.
All of that was obvious against the Falcons, where the Steelers’ explosive starting offense and stifling defense got out to a 14-0 start early on. Calvin Austin’s 21-yard punt return deserves a mention as well. After that, Pittsburgh’s reserves were able to add on another 10 points while maintaining the shutout. Some have said that the Steeler starters’ dominance against the Falcons’ backups isn’t anything worth talking about, but the Bills game last week proved Pittsburgh can deliver against starters and reserves alike. At the end of the day, there’s no way around admitting that this preseason was a special one. Hopefully the Steelers can keep that momentum with them heading towards the regular season.
2. A 17-day break
Remember what I said in the last paragraph about momentum? The Steelers have 17 days between the Falcons game and their regular season opener against San Francisco on September 10. The good news is that will give them plenty of time to be 100 percent healthy heading into the games that count, but the bad news is that it’s an awfully long time to sit a team that’s on a red-hot winning streak. Hopefully the Steelers can keep their forward momentum over their two-and-a-half week bye.
3. The Harris vs. Warren debate
Props to the level-headed Steelers fans over the past week who quelled the Najee Harris vs. Jaylen Warren debate by simply saying isn’t it great to just have two good running backs? Warren continued his great preseason with a powerful touchdown run, but this time Harris got in on the fun with 4 carries for 18 yards and a touchdown along with a big 16-yard catch and run. Harris ran decisively and powerfully, although the big run-blockers up front deserve a share of his and Warren’s credit as well.
The Steelers also weren’t afraid to throw deep against Atlanta, and with a ground and pound runner in the backfield like Harris, it creates a dilemma for defenses trying to defend both. Pittsburgh’s success passing downfield, if it continues into the regular season, should do wonders opening up the run game.
4. Don’t forget about Diontae Johnson
With all of the George Pickens hype, we haven’t talked much about Diontae Johnson this preseason. But he’s looked great so far and continued that trend against the Falcons, recording a big 33-yard catch. He’s shown good hands, the usual fantastic route-running, and even some solid blocking so far this year. Hopefully he can have a bounce back year after failing to see the end zone in 2020. The emergence of some other great weapons on the Steeler offense should help Johnson continue to dominate one-on-one matchups.
5. Who is the real RB3?
Pittsburgh gave Anthony McFarland a lot of snaps against the Falcons, and the Steelers’ top candidate for RB3 looked good overall. He ran for 55 yards on 10 carries, showing off his speed on a long carry he broke to the outside as well as power on a short touchdown run. I think he’ll make the roster after good showings all preseason, but his lack of special teams ability continues to hinder his overall value to the team.
That’s when Connor Heyward comes into play. The do-it-all specialist logged some snaps from the running back position against the Falcons and looked capable, especially in pass protection. While I believe both Heyward and McFarland will make the Steelers’ final 53-man roster, I wouldn’t be surprised if McFarland is often a gameday inactive while Heyward logs the occasional RB3 reps along with his usual duties on offense and special teams. It just makes the most sense that way, unless the Steelers see McFarland as having more kick return upside than he’s shown. Still, McFarland has roster value as a capable runner if Harris or Warren ever have to miss a game.
6. Finally, a good inside linebacker room
Elandon Roberts hasn’t looked bad by any means this preseason, but he’s been a bit overshadowed by teammates Kwon Alexander and Cole Holcomb. Not against the Falcons. Roberts exploded off the tape as a big-hit machine, shooting gaps and blowing up play-calls. He and Alexander are bringing the Vince Williams-esque presence Steeler fans have missed on the interior of the defense, while Holcomb should bring the every-down athleticism needed to supplement it. Mark Robinson also looked solid against Atlanta, helping cause a forced fumble, while Tanner Muse continues to stack good reps as a reserve defender and special teams ace.
I’m starting to think that Nick Kwiatkoski might be the odd man out in this linebacker room, but he hasn’t looked bad either. It’ll be a hard cut, showing just how deep this linebacker room has become over one offseason. It’s nice for the middle of the defense not to be a glaring liability anymore.
7. Is that really a penalty?
Safety Trenton Thompson had a big hit against the Falcons that was questionably flagged for leading with the crown of the helmet. After Kwon Alexander’s even more questionably-flagged hit was fined in the preseason opener, it’s obvious that referees are really cracking down on big hits like these this season. The continued emphasis on player safety is of course a good thing, but just like the roughing the passer rules, the NFL’s good intentions may result in some infuriating calls this season.
8. No Redman Award frontrunners... Could that be a good thing?
Perhaps my favorite BTSC tradition is the Isaac Redman Award, celebrating a late-round/UDFA underdog each year who steals fans’ hearts in a preseason effort for a roster spot. However, this year has had the worst group of candidates since 2020 canceled the preseason altogether. While it could be argued that it points to new GM Omar Khan failing to bring in quality players in the later rounds and undrafted free agency, I’d say that it instead shows how good of a job he’s done bringing in established players to fill out the roster. We’re not counting on unproven unknowns to fill depth spots this year, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this year’s Steelers roster looks deeper than it has for a while.
9. So bad it’s good
I read plenty of complaints regarding the Falcons’ hometown broadcast that was playing live on NFL Network. And yeah, it was as biased and unfocused as you’d expect a preseason hometown broadcast to be. I had more or less tuned out the commentary by the second half, so you can imagine my surprise when I looked up to find the suits in the booth donning giant hats and enjoying nachos.
A few drives later and they had all put on fake mustaches, because why not? Sure, I’ll admit it wasn't very professional or football-related, but I for one appreciated the entertainment value these occasional chaotic interludes provided to an otherwise boring second half of a preseason blowout.
10. Odds and ends
- Kendrick Green didn’t look great but he’s a much better fit at guard than center. I still have a hard time seeing him make the final roster.
- Speaking of Green, the Steelers never played him at fullback even once during the preseason. It makes you wonder what the team was thinking giving him reps there in the first place during training camp.
- Insane George Pickens catches have become so commonplace we hardly mention them anymore. If he continues on the trajectory he’s on, this season could be special.
- Darnell Washington may still be developing as a pass-catcher, but he’s proven to be an NFL-caliber blocker already. I still feel like Zach Gentry is likely to make the final roster, but Washington’s readiness makes the former a surprise cut candidate.
- Chandon Sullivan had a nice bat-down on a slot blitz. He’ll probably get the start in the slot this season but I feel like Elijah Riley will still get some reps in.
- Watt and Alex Highsmith are of course stars, but Nick Herbig and Markus Golden were incredibly disruptive yet again on Thursday. I’m running out of good things to say about this outside linebacker group.
- Dez Fitzpatrick continues to impress on special teams. I’m not sure if Miles Boykin has any competition, but if there is, it’s Fitzpatrick.
- Aron Cruickshank didn’t get any good passes thrown his way, but he had some good separation downfield a few times. The team even gave him a punt return rep. Despite being brand new to the team, I feel like he has a shot at the practice squad.
- It’s hard to watch all 11 players at once during a game, but Broderick Jones looked good in what I saw from him. He has a lot of power and despite his up-and-down start this preseason, the upside is still undeniable.
- Quincy Roche has no chance at making the roster due to the Steelers’ loaded OLB room, but his good showing against Atlanta makes me think he’s a viable practice squad option.
- James Pierre just always seems a step behind, and he doesn’t make splash plays. He’s also given up a number of catches this preseason. His roster chances don’t look as great as they used to, and I’m starting to think that cornerback could be a position the Steelers look to add to during cutdowns.
- Armon Watts had an almost-sack late in the game. Still, it’s hard to see just who has separated themselves from the rest on the bottom of Pittsburgh’s defensive line depth chart.
- Trenton Thompson continues to be my Redman Award favorite. He delivers big hit after big hit even when it backfires. I think splash plays are a must for candidates and he’s had the most in a weak year for the award.
Even though we won’t be seeing the Steelers take the field again for over two weeks, looming roster cutdowns and the promising results of this year’s preseason have left plenty to talk about.
What are your takeaways from Steelers vs. Falcons? Agree/disagree with the ones above? Join our Behind The Steel Curtain community and let us know in the comments!