ATLANTA – The Steelers began training camp nearly a month ago with plenty of questions.
Would Kenny Pickett's second-year jump show up on the field? It was obvious throughout the spring he was in a much different place in terms of his comfortability, but what would that mean on the field?
Could the offensive line continue the dominance it began to show in the second half of last season?
Could a revamped defense get back to its dominant levels?
Could Calvin Austin get back on a moving train after missing all of last season with a foot injury?
You get the idea. The list of questions was a long one.
After one month and three preseason games, it seems the Steelers have answered all of the questions surrounding them and then some.
The latest and last statement came in Thursday night's 24-0 shellacking of the Atlanta Falcons here at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to cap off a 3-0 preseason.
Now, it's the preseason. Let's be clear about that. Only the Buffalo Bills in the Steelers' second preseason game played any of their regulars for any amount of time.
But no matter who the Steelers happened to be playing against, they dominated in this preseason.
Game action photos from the Week 3 preseason game at the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium
The first-team offense was on the field for five possessions, including two against the Falcons. It produced five touchdown drives.
Pickett finished his preseason with a perfect 158.3 passer rating, completing 13 of 15 passes for 199 yards and two touchdowns.
The line was dominant, giving Pickett plenty of time and opening holes for the running backs.
The first-team defense – or at least the front-line players who did play – did not allow a score in the preseason.
Depending on who you asked, however, it all has different meaning.
"I believe so," said 13-year-veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson when asked if a 3-0 preseason means anything. "You always want to find ways to learn how to win. There are ways to learn how to lose in this league. When you find ways, even in a preseason game, to learn how to win, it becomes easier for you. There are things you can learn in the preseason that will help you win in the regular season."
Pickett looked at it a different way.
"It's proof that all the work we put in paid off," Pickett said. "We had a good preseason, but now it counts."
It does count now moving forward.
The slate is now wiped clean. In a little less than three weeks, the Steelers will open the regular season against the San Francisco 49ers at Acrisure Stadium. And if they don't score on their opening possession or if the defense begins allowing touchdown drive after touchdown drive, people will point to the preseason and say, 'See, it doesn't matter.'
But there's more to it than that.
This is a team, particularly on offense, that is building something, maybe not from the ground up, but there's certainly newness to it all.
"All of us are bonding a lot better," said running back Najee Harris. "We're seeing our labor distributed to everybody. That's important because it's a long season. We're going to need everybody."
To Harris' point, that part of the preseason is one thing that has been evident.
The big plays on this offense in the preseason have come from a multitude of players. It's been Diontae Johnson, George Pickens, Allen Robinson, Calvin Austin and Pat Freiermuth making big plays in the passing game. It was Harris, Jaylen Samuel and even Anthony McFarland making plays in the running game.
The offense produced seven plays of 31 or more yards.
And it was Pickett distributing the ball to all of those weapons for those big plays.
Pickett averaged 13.3 yards per pass attempt in this preseason. It's a small sample size, but it was more than double the 6.2 yards per pass attempt he averaged last season.
That willingness to not only attack down the field, but successfully attack down the field will raise all boats.
Scoring more points will make the defense more effective. Completing more passes will back the safeties off the line of scrimmage. And what they did in this preseason has to be accounted for. The 49ers aren't going to be simply watching last year's tape of the Steelers and thinking that's what they're going to see from this team. They're going to look at the three preseason games and see a confident, competent group.
"That's good. Opponents don't know what to cover," said Harris. "The past two years that I've been here, you kind of favored one thing. The big plays weren't there and so we favored the run. They could do more things to stop the run. Now, we're looking for those one-on-ones outside. Just finding a way not to be one-dimensional is important."
• The naysayers will look at this preseason, particularly this game against the Falcons, and say it came against backups.
But if you're playing against lesser talent, you should dominate. If you don't, that's when the questions should be asked.
The Steelers dominated. After they scored to go up 24-0, they held an advantage in total yards of 220 to 8.
And that wasn't all because of their starters. The backups scored the final 10 points during that run and kept the Falcons from gaining a first down.
As Peterson said, "That's their fault they didn't have their guys out there."
• If there's one thing that's very special about this team, it's how it has approached the entire offseason to this point.
It's just continued to go about its business in a very workmanlike fashion.
That approach is guided by Mike Tomlin and his coaching staff. But the players also have to buy in. And they have.
Now, it's about carrying that over to the regular season.
"At training camp, we were stacking blocks day by day," said veteran wide receiver Allen Robinson, one of the team's big pickups on the offensive side of the ball. "We did that throughout the offseason. It's all on us to continue to do that.
"We've been able to handle the challenges that coach has tossed at us. We've taken those things to game days. We've continually stacked blocks as far as what has been in front of us. Now is not the time to pull off the gas. Now is the time to put our foot on it, especially over this next week and a half. It's about really locking in and hitting that thing with a full head of steam."
• The first-team offense produced 131 yards on 11 plays against the Falcons. The chunk plays in this game came on the outside, with Johnson hauling in a 33-yard pass and Pickens catching a 35-yarder, both of which came on a 92-yard drive.
That those came on the outside was highly relevant. Much of the Steelers' success in the passing game in this preseason, at least with Pickett on the field, had come on passes over the middle.
But both long gains in this game came on passes outside the hash marks downfield.
It's been almost as if the emphasis was on a different part of the offense each week.
Running the ball was a point of emphasis in this game, as well, as Harris and Warren combined for six carries for 32 yards.
"We're just trying to get our identity set. It's us getting comfortable," said Harris, who also had one reception for 16 yards on a well-designed screen.
• That identity on offense is focused on being diverse.
On defense, it's something else.
"We're a gritty team," said Peterson. "The Pittsburgh Steelers' identity has always been 'bully ball.' We're trying to get that mentality back, especially throughout the preseason. Hopefully, that will carry over to the regular season."
• The one group of front-line players who did play more in this game was the back seven.
With only cornerback Levi Wallace and safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Damontae Kazee returning from last year, this was a bit of a dress rehearsal for the back end that now includes Peterson, nickel corner Chandon Sullivan and rookie Joey Porter Jr, as well as safety Keanu Neal.
That group was a big part of the Falcons having just 8 total yards late into the second quarter.
"Having as many guys that we acquired in the secondary, we wanted to make sure we're on the page at all times," Peterson said. "I thought communication was great. We have enough guys on the back end with experience that we understand how important communication is and being on the same page. We're not going to be giving up big plays or having guys running wide open."
• Another one of those big questions that needed to be answered in this preseason was if the entirely new group of inside linebackers could be better than last year's group.
So far, so good.
The trio of Myles Jack, Devin Bush and Robert Spillane produced no turnovers, one sack and seven pass tackles for a loss – all season.
With Mark Robinson being the only holdover from a group that now includes Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander, the inside linebacker group has been much more active – at least in the preseason.
Roberts had a sack and two tackles for a loss in this game, while Robinson forced a fumble. Holcomb and Alexander made plays behind the line of scrimmage in this preseason, as well.
• The Steelers scored at least 24 points in all three of their preseason games – and they really took their foot off the pedal in the second half of this game.
They scored 24 or more points in a game just four times all of last season.
Now, all that really matters is scoring one more point that whoever you're playing on that particular day, but imagine what this pass rush can do if it's playing with a few more leads or a touchdown or more.
• It cannot be stressed nearly enough that the Steelers made it through the preseason without any major injuries.
And they now have 17 days with which to heal up any minor bumps and bruises before they play again.
"For guys who are banged up, it's a chance to get their bodies right before Week 1," said linebacker Alex Highsmith. "It gives us time to watch film and study the 49ers before they come to Pittsburgh. I'm excited for it. I can't wait for that matchup."
Remember, in each of the previous two seasons, the Steelers have gone on the road and beaten the Bills and Bengals – two of the NFL's top teams – to open the season. The opener this year is at home against another one of those teams that is considered a Super Bowl contender.
• We all know the AFC is loaded this year. By anyone who thinks the Steelers aren't going to be in the mix this year when it's all said and done hasn't been paying attention. This preseason only validates the idea that this is a very complete football team.
Sure, maybe Pickett isn't Patrick Mahomes or Joe Burrow or Josh Allen. But you don't need to have one of those guys are quarterback if you've got a great team.
Football is, after all, the ultimate team game.
This Steelers team is as deep as any in the NFL. It's got dynamic playmakers on offense and defense. It's solid on both lines of scrimmage.
As important as those things are, this team also is brimming with confidence. It knows who and what it wants to be and is capable of imposing its will on opponents.
"I don't really worry about the outside much," said Peterson of those who still doubt this team. "I worry about the inside."