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Labriola On

Labriola on the 2023 Steelers

It's not difficult to point out their blemishes. But it's also fair to admit they have worked hard on as many as they could within the confines of a hard salary cap coupled with a draft system that requires as much luck as skill in any attempt to re-make and/or reinforce a roster over the course of a single offseason.

When 2022 ended, the Steelers offense was one that needed to find a way to be more prolific on the scoreboard and more explosive in the process. There are a lot of elements that go into ringing up NFL scoreboards on a weekly basis over the course of a regular season that now lasts for 19 calendar weeks. And actually, it might be better to have a respectable level of efficiency in a lot of different aspects of offense and combine that with unpredictability, than it would be to be really good at one thing and dare defenses to load up and stop it.

During the offseason, they used unrestricted free agency and a couple of their draft picks to inject a top-level talent and also to reinforce their depth everywhere along the offensive line. They're more versatile at tight end and running back. Their wide receivers can win with either speed or savvy or route-running or freakish skills. Their quarterback is still a relative neophyte as a second-year pro, but he has better zip on the ball, a better understanding and feel for playing the position at the NFL level because he's no longer a rookie, and he always has been a cutthroat competitor.

Through two-thirds of their preseason, this offense has six chunk running plays (10 yards or longer), a 67-yard receiving touchdown and a 33-yard receiving touchdown, and their second-year quarterback is 9-for-11 for 113 yards, with 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and a rating of 149.05.

On defense, they added a couple of layers of depth to their edge position, because they cannot again allow one injury there to derail a season; on the defensive line and in the secondary they added a lot of "position-less" players, versatile individuals to allow the coaching staff to disguise pressure/coverage packages and then depend on the athletes to make plays. Sacks, takeaways. Big plays at critical moments. Field goals instead of touchdowns.

Specifically against Buffalo, a team with the talent and experience to be a Super Bowl contender, with its first 7 possessions – five in the first half and the first two of the second half – the Bills offense went: punt, punt, punt, interception, interception, interception, fumble. Rookie Joey Porter Jr. recorded one of those interceptions in his maiden voyage, and rookie outside linebacker Nick Herbig contributed a strip/sack to account for another of the takeaways and now has 2.5 sacks this summer.

Herbig is one of those layers of depth at edge rusher, and Porter is the piece on the chess board that can allow the other pieces on the chess board to be more dangerous and unpredictable.

Sticking with the performance vs. the Bills, the offense – using the same first-seven-possession sample size, the Steelers went: touchdown, touchdown, punt, punt, punt, field goal, field goal. There was a 62-yard touchdown by Jaylen Warren, where guards Isaac Seumalo and James Daniels sealed the inside and Dan Moore Jr. cleared the point of attack to allow the back to burst through and into the secondary, where Diontae Johnson handled the final defender with any shot at preventing the touchdown.

And there was a 25-yard touchdown pass to Pat Freiermuth was extra special because of the fact it came right up the middle of the Bills defense and then because of the way Kenny Pickett delivered the ball over linebacker Matt Milano and far enough away from safety Jordan Poyer to prevent him from making a play.

Oh, and special teams contributed a 54-yard punt return by Calvin Austin III to set up that 25-yard touchdown pass, there was a perfect 5-for-5 Pressley Harvin III punts downed inside the 20-yard line, and Chris Boswell made both of his field goal attempts and both of his PATs.

While the Steelers have worked hard on their roster and the results from that work have been encouraging, this 2023 group also has been cultivating the mental complement to the physical performance. There is a closeness on this team, what seems to be a genuine appreciation and respect among players, even among players across the lines of scrimmage. And it hasn't manifested itself organically.

"It has been an agenda of ours, particularly in this training camp that those things you mentioned, that intangible quality that makes up team I don't believe is a mystical thing," said Coach Mike Tomlin some 48 hours before the Steelers hosted the Bills. "I don't want to hope that it develops, I don't want to watch it develop. I want to create it. I want us as individuals and as a collective to own the responsibility of the creation of those things. Whether it's the creation of a good day, or whether it's the creation of a brotherhood that represents team, we own that.

"And so we've just been talking openly about it as a team, that when we walk in the door or we address a day, we decide whether that's going to be a good day or not. We intentionally create good days with our attitude, our approach to business, with our consideration of others, and so we've just been talking openly about it. We've been failing some and when we fail, we talk about the failure. When it goes well, we acknowledge that. I just never want the outcome of games to be a mystical thing. Sometimes it becomes a mystical thing in team sport endeavors, because individuals feel like there's a loss of control. I want these guys to know as individuals that they have control of these days, that they have control of the creation of this environment. They've got control of the brunt of the creation of the brotherhood by what it is that they do. Control of their level of professionalism and their level of consideration and respect that they have for those they work with and what they're trying to get done and what we're trying to get done. And that it's all in an effort to produce a consistent winner.

"I don't want to be a group that believes in the superstition thing that oftentimes rules sport – 'You won three or four games in a row, so you're due a loss. Or you lost three or four games in a row, so you're due a win.' No. Uh-uh. Each of those performances stand on its own. You create them. There is no mystique. It's the work that we do. And to me, that's how you create an environment where you produce a consistent winner, or the type of approach that produces consistent winning. That's what we desire here. Football is our game. Our job is to win."

There still can be, and there is going to have to be individual and group improvement plus whatever tinkering is necessary to achieve that over the next couple of weeks as the 53-man roster is formed and roles within that bigger group are awarded to the worthy. But then comes Sunday, Sept. 10, when the San Francisco 49ers should be expected to provide a test more challenging than anything this group will have faced to that point.

That's when it will become time for them to start doing their job. And it seems as though they have enough tools to make the 2023 season very interesting.