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3 questions remaining after the Steelers’ undefeated preseason

Do we need to pump the brakes on the Steelers hype train?

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard not to be excited after the way the Steelers played to a perfect 3-0 record in the preseason. Many BTSC commenters have stated that they feel uneasy with being so amped up for a season. It’s easy to get fired up when the starting offense only took the field five times and each possession ended in a touchdown while the starting defense started each game with a three and out.

The Steelers led at halftime by a combined score of 62-7 before completely handing the games over to the bottom of the roster. So, what’s not to like about these Pittsburgh Steelers following their successful preseason? Let’s play contrarian, nitpick, and find a few reasons to toss a little water on the preseason Pittsburgh Steelers hype fires.

Is the passing game really any different?

Kenny Pickett is the most important player on the offense, and going a combined 13-of-15 passing for 199 yards with 2 TDs suggests the sky could be the limit. However, there’s plenty of reason to wonder if things will drastically improve in the regular season.

For the past few years, most Steeler fans have bemoaned the lack of intermediate throws, over-the-middle throws, and yards after the catch. Of Pickett’s 15 throws, only two would seem to buck this tendency. If you only watched the highlights, you saw them and were wearing out your Terrible Towel arm. George Pickens took a 15-yard slant to the end zone against Tampa Bay. Pat Freiermuth caught his 25-yard TD in the heart of the second level of the Buffalo Bills defense, right over the head of the coverage linebacker.

Against the Atlanta Falcons, Diontae Johnson snagged a 33-yard pass that Pickett dropped in the bucket down the left sideline and Pickens made a Pickens-only type of catch of a 35-yarder down the right sideline. These plays were exciting to watch, but can they be counted on as a regular part of the offense? While big gainers, neither of these plays offered any yards after the catch possibility. The remaining 11 throws were:

  • Three 7-yard stop routes (one over the middle)
  • Two swing passes to Harris
  • A 10-yard out that took DJ to the sideline
  • A 2-yard drag route to Allen Robinson off of a bootleg
  • A comeback to DJ off a scramble
  • Two zone-stop throws to Robinson while leaving the pocket and
  • A throwaway off of a scramble.

Defenses certainly knew how to handle those types of plays last year. Play-calling inspiration needs to come from the Freiermuth and Pickens touchdowns, not the long sideline routes — even though they were successful.

Are there going to be holes for the running backs?

What’s not to like about a preseason where the top two running backs combined had 12 carries for 110 yards and 3 TDs? The Jaylen Warren 62-yard touchdown run against Buffalo may be the highlight of the preseason, but that is one statistical outlier that skews the numbers. If we ignore Warren’s burst along with Najee Harris’s longest run of 12 yards it leaves us with the other 10 carries gaining only 36 yards. Some will call that a cherry-picking of stats, but it also shows 10 limited success running plays out of 12 total attempts.

If you feel I left Anthony McFarland out of this discussion to keep his 31-yard run out of my stats, that is not the case. McFarland had a total of 22 carries for 75 yards that would’ve dragged these numbers down even if I left his long run in the mix. I left him out as he sees the field so rarely in the regular season that I didn’t feel it was relevant.

Can the Steelers cornerbacks cover?

The Steelers overhaul of the cornerback room this offseason was highlighted by signing free agent Patrick Peterson. The 33-year-old will be counted on to solidify the back end of the defense. We didn’t see much of him in preseason, and what we did see wasn’t exactly great.

Against Buffalo, he gave up two catches where he took the deep fake when the receiver cut in, and he ended up not within two yards of the catch. Was that just rust or was it an older player worried about losing a foot race down the sidelines to a faster wide receiver? How badly (and soon) will the Steelers need rookie CB Joey Porter Jr. to take on one of the outside corner spots?

The other preseason cornerback of note is James Pierre — the most-tenured cornerback on the Steelers roster. While he’s been an above-average depth player in his three years with the Steelers, this preseason he was consistently targeted and did not show well. Thankfully he won’t be counted on as anything more than depth again this year.

Levi Wallace continues his quality, if unspectacular, play while newcomers Elijah Riley and Chandon Sullivan are still vying for the slot cornerback position. This preseason provided answers at many roster spots, but it seemed to raise more questions about the cornerbacks.

The Steelers followed up the preseason with another cornerback Wednesday, adding 2018 All-Pro Desmond King to the 53-man roster after being released by the Houston Texans. Though he’s spent the past two seasons playing primarily on the outside, the bulk of his career snaps have been at the nickel spot, giving him some intriguing versatility.

So there you have it. We’ve officially done enough nitpicking to tone down the raging inferno of Steelers excitement heading into the September 10th game against the San Francisco 49ers.

How did I do? Too good and you are now convinced we will be drafting in the top ten next year, or do none of these arguments have you canceling your Super Bowl flight and hotel reservations?