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6 positives the Steelers can build upon following their abysmal Week 1 loss

The Steelers Week 1 loss may have felt at first like an unmitigated disaster, but there were a few positives that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver George Pickens (14) makes a catch against San Francisco 49ers cornerback Charvarius Ward (7) but can not stay in bounds during the third quarter at Acrisure Stadium. San Francisco won 30-7. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

There were certainly a number of important things that went wrong for the Steelers in Week 1 against the 49ers, but as bad as it was there were also some genuine bright spots.

Before you call me out for being relentlessly and blindly optimistic, you should know that I watched Sunday’s game from a little different perspective than most people. That’s because I didn’t watch the game live, but only after I heard about the outcome.

Ahead of Week 1 kickoff, my expectations for the Steelers were as high as anyone’s. I had to work while the game was going on, so I could only check in on the box score, but as saw the scores and stats unfold I was as raging mad as anyone at the Steelers’ apparent inability to do anything at all at a competent level. It wasn’t until Monday that I even cooled down enough to watch the replay. Watching it for the first time after I’d already been utterly disappointed, I was surprised to find I was encouraged by what I saw, which showed it wasn’t really as bad as I’d thought.

To be clear, the run defense was a disaster, Kenny Pickett couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn for some reason, and Levi Wallace couldn’t cover a lamp with a lampshade. I do expect Pickett and Wallace at least to bounce back, but I’m not going to sugarcoat how awful they and the run defense all were. There were other issues as well, and I’m aware of that too, but it wasn’t all bad. In fact, there were some things that were genuinely exciting.

1. T.J. Watt is good at football

To start with the obvious, T.J. Watt took advantage of a favorable matchup to the tune of three sacks and two forced fumbles, putting him on pace for 51 sacks on the season. Okay, obviously he’s not going to keep having days like this against rights who actually have, you know, experience, but taking advantage of favorable matchups when you’re given them is a big part of making it to 23 sacks. Watt has improved his sack total every year he’s been healthy. He’s starting off like he could do it again this year, breaking his own single-season sack record in the process, and that’s going to be exciting to watch.

2. George Pickens has leveled up

Pickens was unfortunately just out of bounds when he made his routine circus catch this game, demonstrating his ability to reliably make exceptional grabs. He also had several catches underneath in this game, however, showing that he’s gained the ability to make those routine eight-yard gains required of a true WR1. With Pickens running a full route tree, that will open up downfield shots more too, because opponents won’t be able to sit on the go route. He’s already a highlight reel waiting to happen; with more targets, he could quickly become one of the most exciting receivers in the game.

3. Calvin Austin III isn’t scared of anyone

Although the offense as a whole fell fall short of the preseason hype, the one guy whose hype people were most skeptical about following through. Austin didn’t get much chance as a punt returner and he didn’t break off a big gainer, but nobody has ever doubted he has the speed to do damage in the open field. His ability to face up to bigger NFL defenders was the big question, and on his very first touch, an end around that blown up in the backfield, he showed the ability to not just avoid big hits but fight his way forward for yardage after contact.

Austin certainly isn’t a hard guy to bring down. After all, we saw him get ragdoll tackled later in the game, but he’s also not an easy guy to get your hands on, even in tight spaces, and good luck actually squaring him up for a big hit. That ability to fearlessly face, and avoid, big hits is key to being a punt returner and a wide receiver when you’re playing at Calvin Austin’s size. He has it, and that could allow him to see a fairly substantial workload. We already saw it in Week 1 where he saw five catches on five targets, incidentally also answering questions about his hands. With Johnson injured, Austin becomes WR3 and we may see plenty more of him. With his speed, every touch has the potential to be a touchdown, and that will be exciting to see as well.

4. The Steelers actually have a kick return game

With so much else going wrong, ironically the Steelers found a way to succeed at the one thing you most expect them to fail at. The Steeler kick return game has been woeful for years, but Anthony McFarland looked good and the blocking was clearly opening lanes for him. AntMac also pulled in a low throw to convert on a fourth down during the game. Sure, that’s not going to win us a Super Bowl, but it’s certainly a breath of fresh air.

5. The problems with Pickett and at CB are fixable

Heck, I’m feeling so positive now, that I’ll just go ahead and minimize the things that went wrong too. Kenny Pickett looked bad, but it’s not like watching Mason Rudolph or Mitch Trubisky throw a bonehead interception and thinking, “Are they never going to learn?”

This wasn’t Pickett continuing to struggle at stuff we know he’s bad at; this was him failing at stuff he’s normally good at. We know already that Pickett can be more accurate than we saw in Week 1, so there’s no reason to panic like he’s going to struggle like this all season. It was just a bad game.

Similarly, Levi Wallace looked awful, but if there’s one thing anyone who knows anything about Wallace knows, it’s that he’s a fighter. This isn’t a guy whose confidence is shot if he has a bad game; overcoming adversity is what he’s done all his career. And if he for some reason isn’t up to the task this year, oh, look, we have the 32nd overall pick just waiting behind him to take the field.

6. Hard times create strong men

I’m not saying all is well, and the Steelers will look like Super Bowl contenders next week. I do expect them to bounce back significantly, though, and that’s really what you want at this point in the year. The Steelers improved a lot during last season, we’ll continue to improve this season, and we’ve already shown some exciting things to build on even in the blowout loss. You don’t win Super Bowls by starting the season hot, but by ending the season hot. If we can use this loss to learn, grow, and focus it could be a blessing in disguise.

The first opportunity to do so will be this week against a divisional foe where a win would be way more significant than a win against the 49ers would’ve been in terms of securing a playoff berth. Of course, a win against Cleveland can hardly be taken for granted after what we learned about the team on Sunday, but there are actually positives to build on, and learning that we need to do so may actually be the best thing for this team in the long run.