10 Thoughts: Steelers show off outside linebacker depth

One of the issues that helped derail the Steelers during their slow start to the 2022 season was playing seven games without T.J. Watt after he went down with a pectoral injury.

The Steelers went 1-6 without the then-reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, showing his overall value to the team.

While the team certainly expects a bounce-back season from Watt, who has looked great throughout the offseason and training camp, there also was a sense that, like GM Omar Khan and company did at a lot of positions this offseason, the backup spots at outside linebacker needed to be addressed.

Not only did the Steelers select Nick Herbig out of Wisconsin in the fourth round of the draft, they also signed veteran edge rusher Markus Golden in free agency.

If there was any question whether the backup spots behind Watt and Alex Highsmith have been upgraded, the team's two preseason games have shown they most certainly have.

Soon after Watt and Highsmith exited Saturday night's 27-15 win over the Bills at Acrisure Stadium, Herbig and Golden made their presence felt – working against Buffalo's first-team offense.

With All-Pro quarterback Josh Allen still in the game, the Bills were on the move early in the second quarter when Herbig screamed off the edge, beating left tackle Dion Dawkins around the corner and getting a hand on Allen to force an incompletion. Two plays later, Golden beat right tackle Spencer Brown off the edge and forced a holding call that helped completely derail the Buffalo drive.

"As edge rushers in this defense we can't play 100 percent of the snaps," said Watt. "So to have guys we can trust to make plays when we're not in there, when we're sitting on the sidelines getting gassed back up to go back in is huge for the defense. I like the way our room is shaping up."

Herbig later picked up another sack, giving him a team-high 2.5 in the preseason. And he did it using a move Watt had been repping with him after practices at Saint Vincent College.

And Herbig, who had entered the game on the right side of the defense, where Highsmith lines up over the left tackle, got this sack coming off the left side of the defense, which is where Watt aligns.

"Me and T.J. were talking about potential moves I could use off that side," Herbig said. "He kept telling me I had to set it up with my other rushes. It was something we worked on every day. So, I really just went out there and I tried it."

The pass rush consisted of Herbig giving an extended step through, grab of the tackle's outside arm and then duck under. Watt had repped it for the other outside linebackers in slow motion following Wednesday's practice. And Herbig executed it perfectly Saturday night.

What's that move called?

"I don't know. The T.J. Watt?" said Herbig of his fellow Wisconsin star.

The fact that a young player such as Herbig can learn those kind of things so quickly is encouraging. It also doesn't hurt when there's little pressure for him to perform because he has two good players ahead of him and another in Golden who has reached double digits in sacks twice in his career also on the roster.

"I've got three All-Pro-type guys in my room, so why wouldn't I want to listen to them," Herbig said.

Game action photos from the Week 2 preseason game vs. the Buffalo Bills

It bodes well for the team's depth in 2023. If, heaven forbid, Watt or Highsmith had to miss some time – or even some plays here or there – the Steelers have options.

Golden can play at a high level. And Herbig is quickly establishing that he can be productive, as well.

Just don't give Watt any credit for helping Herbig along.

"No, man. You've got to give him credit. He works his butt off," Watt said. "I think he's a phenomenal player. I feel like he's done a lot of really good things for himself at Wisconsin that's translating well."

• Through two preseason games, the Steelers' first-team offense has scored three touchdowns on three drives.

Kenny Pickett and his comfort in this offense has been a big part of that.

Through two games, Pickett has now completed 9 of 11 passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns. That's a passer rating of 149.05.

That's great. But it's also the throws that he's made that have been even more impressive.

On third-and-7 on the team's opening possession, he rolled to his right, recognized that the Bills had dropped into two-deep coverage and delivered a strike to Allen Robinson, who had sat down in the zone 10 yards downfield, to pick up the first down.

On the next play, Jaylen Warren went 62 yards for a touchdown.

But that didn't diminish picking up that third down.

"We were expecting cover-2," Pickett said. "It was a good call into that. Allen did a great job finding the zone, and we picked up the first down. And obviously Jaylen did the rest after that. It was a good sequence for us."

Equally as impressive was Pickett's throw to tight end Pat Freiermuth for a 25-yard touchdown pass after Calvin Austin III broke off a 54-yard punt return.

Freiermuth worked down the left hash mark with Bills' Pro Bowl linebacker Matt Milano to the inside. The safety shaded to the receiver on the outside, so Pickett threw the pass to Freiermuth's back shoulder, where Milano couldn't possibly make a play on the ball.

It was reminiscent to some throws Ben Roethlisberger made to Freiermuth in his rookie season, when he tested the young tight end to see what his catch radius was. Freiermuth is a tight end who can make that play. Not every tight end can run at full speed and get his body turned around the other way to adjust to that pass.

"It just shows all the work Kenny has put in this offseason working with guys, myself, GP (George Pickens), Diontae (Johnson)," Freiermuth said.

It's also about understanding what he's seeing and where to go with the ball.

"Cover-2. Same thing," Pickett said of the defensive look. "I wanted (Johnson) singled up. They ended up putting the safety over the top. That told me it was cover-2. And I had Pat and the linebacker down the middle. So that was a good matchup that we talked about leading up to this game."

• Last week against Tampa Bay, it was Johnson getting three catches and Pickens coming up with the long TD catch. This week, it was Freiermuth with the long TD catch and Jaylen Warren breaking off a long run for a score.

But the Steelers also have gotten explosive plays from Austin in both games, a 67-yard touchdown catch against the Buccaneers and a 54-yard punt return against the Bills.

Austin's speed and big-play ability is something opposing team's are going to have to respect.

But the Steelers can get those chunks from a lot of different guys.

• Chandon Sullivan got the start with the first-team defense as the nickel corner, but gave way to Elijah Riley.

Riley came up with an interception in the second quarter off a tipped pass by inside linebacker Cole Holcomb.

Then, in the third quarter, Sullivan was back in the game and intercepted a pass on a blitz out of the slot where he leaped in the air, tipping the pass and then intercepting it.

Both of those players have an opportunity to help this team this season.

• Holcomb and Elandon Roberts started the game at inside linebacker on Buffalo's opening series. Then, Kwon Alexander replaced Holcomb on the second series and was on the field with Roberts for the second series. For the third series, Holcomb came on again, replacing Roberts.

The Steelers seem to have a nice mix with those three, with Alexander looking as if he'll be the dime linebacker.

Much the way the Steelers could use either Damontae Kazee or Keanu Neal at strong safety depending on matchups, they also could do the same at linebacker, using a combination of that trio depending on the opponent and what it likes to do.

• Not only did Herbig make another big play on defense, so did second-round pick Joey Porter Jr., intercepting a pass in the second quarter.

The rookie cornerback missed the game against the Buccaneers with an injury, but got his feet wet in a big way in this game.

After picking off the Matt Barkley pass, Porter looked around for his father, longtime former Steelers player and coach, Joey Porter Sr. He finally found him and gave him the ball.

"He was all the way up there in the nosebleed (section)," the younger Porter said. "So, when he finally came down, I got the ball back and gave it to him."

They can argue later about who gets to keep it – though the elder Porter has enough game balls of his own from his playing days.

The fact the guys in this rookie class keep making plays is impressive.

First-round pick Broderick Jones played extensively at left tackle once again, and though he was beaten for a sack late in the game, he's showing promise. Defensive lineman Keeanu Benton, the second of the team's two picks in Round 2 of the draft, did not play in this game because of an ankle injury, but was impressive in the opener. Third-round tight end Darnell Washington drew a pass interference penalty in the end zone late in the first half that set up a touchdown, while seventh-round pick Spencer Anderson played right tackle, right guard and center at various times in this game.

"They're playing fast and fluid and with emotion, and that shows me that they know what they're doing. So those are just good signs," Tomlin said of his rookies. "I am always looking for emotion from young guys because that's, more than anything, it lets you know they're comfortable in what they're doing."

• There were a lot of "Yeah, but," statements after the Steelers easily handled Tampa Bay last week. After all, the Bucs aren't expected to be a good team this season and they sat a number of starters.

But Saturday night's dominance came against the Bills, who are considered one of the top teams in the NFL. And Buffalo wasn't sitting any starters.

Maybe, just maybe, the critics will start believing in this team a little more.

• One thing we haven't seen from this team is the overall sloppiness of either Tampa Bay or Buffalo.

A week after Tampa Bay committed 12 penalties for 127 yards, Buffalo had 13 penalties for 93 yards.

The Steelers through two games have committed 10 penalties for 72 yards, including just four penalties for 26 yards in this game.

With so many bodies going in and out of the games, it's tough not to have some issues, especially with younger players trying to make a name for themselves or overthinking things. That hasn't happened with the Steelers and is a testament to how demanding the coaching staff has been throughout this process.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

For example, if an offensive lineman – any offensive lineman – false started throughout the offseason process, they were immediately replaced for at least a play and then got a talking to from position coach Pat Meyer.

When you demand players do things right in a practice setting, that tends to carry over into games.

• When it comes to looking at punters, you can't simply look at his average and see how he played or is playing.

Pressley Harvin III averaged just 38.2 yards on his five punts against the Bills, with a long of 52 yards. But his net average was 37.8 yards and all five of his kicks were downed inside the opposing 20.

Buffalo's punter, Sam Martin, averaged 47.0 yards on his five punts in this game. But in addition to Austin breaking off a 54-yard return, Gunner Olszewski had two returns for 24 yards. So, Martin's net average was just 31.4 yards.

Which punter had the better day?

• The Steelers once again made it through a preseason game without a major injury to any of their front-line players. And that's job No. 1 – or at least No. 2 – on the things to accomplish in a preseason game.