Based on how their 2022 season ended and the specific things that happened during those 17 games that conspired to prevent them from qualifying for the postseason, the Steelers could point to a list of issues that needed to be addressed.
A good place to begin is getting offense to start games more quickly, and nothing satisfies the desired time frame better than scoring a touchdown on its opening possession, something that happened exactly twice all of last season.
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Sticking with the offense, the unit also had to find a way to create more chunk plays and develop ways to score quickly instead of having to depend so much on putting together drives of 10-plus plays to get into the end zone.
On defense, maybe the most glaring issue in 2022 was the stark difference between the unit's performance when T.J. Watt was on the field vs. the weeks he couldn't play because of injury, and their roster was imploring them to add more top of the depth chart talents to complement Cam Heyward and Larry Ogunjobi on that side of the line of scrimmage.
Certainly there were other issues, other aspects of their offensive performance that needed to be improved upon, as well as personnel additions to allow them to better handle the ways opponents were choosing to attack their defense, but a more explosive and dynamic offense complemented by a defense that wasn't so totally dependent on one individual inarguably were at the top of however long the whole to-do list might have been.
Friday night at Raymond James Stadium offered the Steelers the first opportunity to gauge any progress they might have made in addressing those shortcomings, and while it was just a preseason game, and only the first of three of those at that, it's a fair assessment to say what they did against the Buccaneers during a 27-17 victory that doesn't count in the standings as an indicator of progress being made. Or at least it can offer hope they're on the correct path toward making that progress.
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"Was good to learn lessons while doing what you need to do," said Coach Mike Tomlin, "but beyond that I thought we saw some things we wanted to see tonight. First unit offense – Kenny (Pickett) spread the ball around, kept himself clean, moved the group, and we were able to check that box in terms of getting them a quality look at the process."
In fact, what the offense did on its opening possession looked as though it was more about showing that it was able to apply the lessons it had learned on the practice fields at Saint Vincent College to game action. Throughout the team's time on campus over the previous two-plus weeks, Pickett was seen working on the very things Tomlin later referred to during his postgame assessment of the first unit.
While it's true there's no hitting the quarterback during any practice, Pickett nonetheless wasn't taking that privilege for granted by turning himself into a statue mounted in the pocket. On a daily basis during practice, Pickett never stopped moving and juking in ways to avoid pressure that always stopped a hair short of live impact while never giving up on the play-call and never losing sight of what the eligibles were doing down the field.
That's what was happening against the Buccaneers. Pickett was seeing it and letting it rip with velocity and accuracy, and if he had to move himself into an area of the field to execute that, so be it. Eight yards to Diontae Johnson. Six to Pat Freiermuth. Two plays later on a third-and-10 he got his body into position to convert with an accurate and perfectly timed throw on an 11-yard comeback route to Johnson right on the sideline to convert a third-and-10 for the first down.
After a tough run by Jaylen Warren gained 10 and took the Steelers onto the Buccaneers half of the field, another 13-yard completion to Johnson. On second-and-8, Pickett ducked away from linebacker Yaya Diaby and threw the ball away just as defensive end Mike Greene was lining him up for a kill shot. Then on the next play, third-and-8 from the Tampa Bay 33-yard line, Pickett stood in there and delivered a strike to George Pickens on a post route, between cornerback Zyon McCollum and linebacker K.J. Britt. On a play that attacked an area of the field the 2022 offense had avoided too often, Pickett pulled the trigger on the kind of throw his rookie self wouldn't have attempted, and then delivered with the velocity and accuracy his rookie self didn't have in his arsenal.
Pickens caught it cleanly and because the pass hit him perfectly in stride it provided the opportunity for Pickens to do those Pickens things and complete the play for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. These boxes had been checked: first possession for a touchdown, chunk play, getting into the end zone on one snap from outside the 30-yard line, keep the defense on its heels, no punches taken by the quarterback. The very things they had been repping in what Tomlin describes as "football-like but not football" were executed at a high level when it turned into football.
"I'm not going to look too far into it," said Pickett about the opening drive success. "Obviously, it's preseason so it's pretty vanilla football, but it was really good to go out there and score and get different guys looks and things that we worked on. It was a good drive, you know, but I'm not going to look too much into it yet."
Nor should he, because his is a business where success is measured in consistency over time, and 5-plus minutes of game clock in a preseason opener doesn't even qualify as a snapshot. But it shouldn't be overlooked that doing it consistently over time cannot happen until it's done a first time. That it happened at the earliest possible moment helps build confidence, which is a contributing factor in being able to do it consistently over time.
A couple of other meaningful events from Tampa included enough of a dose of rookie outside linebacker Nick Herbig to confirm his ability to transfer all of that flash during one-on-one pass rush drills, that slipperiness in backs-on-backers, into 11-on-11 inside a stadium. He was relentless, he was an annoyance to the Buccaneers offense, and he finished well enough to record a tackle-for-loss on a running play and post 1.5 sacks against the pass. Herbig looked capable of developing into another chess piece on the board, which the Steelers lacked when Watt was out with his injured pectoral.
Game action photos from the Week 1 preseason game at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium
The rookie defensive lineman who had been building to that same "another chess piece on the board" status in Latrobe was on the way to showing he also was capable of transferring Friday Night Lights and daily team-run period into an NFL stadium. A 309-pound athlete who was drafted 49th overall because he had the promise of being able to handle the run responsibilities of a nose tackle while also being a contributor to the interior pass rush, Benton seemed to be blossoming before our eyes.
On a fourth-and-1 at midfield in the second quarter of a 7-7 tie, Benton blasted into the backfield and destroyed running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn's path to the line of scrimmage to allow Isaiahh Loudermilk to make the tackle for a 3-yard loss. Later, Benton stuffed running back Sean Tucker for a 1-yard gain, and then a few plays later dumped him for a 3-yard loss. All of that was tempered by the sight of Benton later limping his way to the visitor's locker room with what appeared to be an ankle injury of undetermined severity.
"(Nick) Herbig on defense, (Keanu) Benton on defense were young guys I thought stood out," said Tomlin, "but there's a lot of teaching and learning that needs to happen based on the result of what just happened. It just is. I think it's reasonable to expect us to be significantly better next week. This experience of having been in the stadium and in an environment like this, if we don't use it as a catalyst to work next week and get better then shame on us."
Absolutely, that's the way an NFL coach is supposed to view anything good to come out of a first preseason game, but it is heartening that there are some good things for him to view.