They are not a finished product, and it would be foolish to hint that they're even close to being anything more than a team in development. But the Steelers are developing, and in some significant ways they're developing into what they'll need to become.
The penultimate game of a team's preseason often is considered to be the dress rehearsal for the upcoming regular season, mostly because of where it falls on the NFL calendar. Coaches are loathe to take risks on the eve of a regular season after putting so much time and effort into nurturing a roster through an entire offseason, and so preseason finales have become the embodiment of going through the motions. It's 60 minutes of "don't get anyone hurt," and then it's onto the games that count in the standings.
The Steelers' dress rehearsal came on Saturday at Heinz Field against the Detroit Lions, and history will show they held on for a 26-20 victory that left them at 3-0 for this preseason, and while there always is value in winning whenever participating in something with an operational scoreboard, this also is one of those very rare occasions in this business where aesthetics has some value.
What the aesthetics tell you from this dress rehearsal is that during the time when the Steelers deployed personnel that looked an awful lot like the personnel they'll utilize starting on Sept. 12 in Buffalo against the Bills, they built a 20-0 lead and looked quite efficient during its construction. There was no game-planning or attempts to fool the opponent with schemes and disguises – that won't come into play until the start of the regular season – but in just about every other way what the Steelers presented against the Lions was representative of regular season football.
Starting with the first preseason appearance of Ben Roethlisberger.
There is no secret that what these Steelers end up accomplishing during the 2021 NFL season will hinge on Roethlisberger, on his ability to absorb and implement the new offense, on his ability to lead that unit, and by extension, to lead the whole team, on his ability to start fast and finish strong, on his ability to be what this team will need him to be at any and every point of the upcoming season.
Within the reality of the situation dictated by dress rehearsal, Roethlisberger delivered, and it's no coincidence that during his time on the field the offense looked as efficient as it has to this point in the process. A false start penalty on the Steelers first offensive play prevented that possession from developing any rhythm, and it ended up being the only time the Steelers had the ball in the first half and did not score any points.
After that opening possession, Roethlisberger converted every third down situation and only threw one incomplete pass along the way to back-to-back touchdown drives – of 82 and 58 yards – that ended with passes to rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth and allowed the 39-year-old quarterback to end his first, and likely only, day's work of this preseason with a perfect passer rating of 158.3.
And to point to a potentially significant moment, on the first third-down situation of the team's second possession – a third-and-3 from the Pittsburgh 25-yard line, Roethlisberger eschewed a short pass and instead attacked down the field with Diontae Johnson. A harsh judgment of the play would label the ball slightly underthrown, but Roethlisberger still put it where Johnson could make a play on it, and the third-year receiver came through with the catch for a 45-yard gain to the Lions 32-yard line.
Add that play to the way Roethlisberger consistently has chosen the deeper routes during training camp practices, and it's apparent he's exercising the long-ball muscles in his right arm and developing a level of confidence in it that he might not have had in 2020 in his first season back after surgery on his right elbow.
"I thought he did a nice job," said Coach Mike Tomlin about Roethlisberger's performance. "I thought we got what we wanted to get accomplished – get him familiar with administering the offense in an in-stadium-like circumstance. I thought he did a great job of communicating, he made good and fluid decisions, and we were able to move the ball."
And finish by sticking the ball in the end zone, which didn't happen again once he was removed from the game.
The rest of the offense responded to Roethlisberger's presence, especially the rookies. Running back Najee Harris, Freiermuth, and center Kendrick Green are going to be important supporting cast members to this offense, and they certainly seemed up to the task during dress rehearsal. Harris already has shown a consistent ability to get more yards than the blocking dictates, and his 46-yard catch-and-run that ignited the Steelers' second touchdown drive proved he didn't waste that extra season he decided to spend at Alabama to work on his receiving.
Freiermuth catches everything and is a willing if novice blocker, and Green is all effort and athleticism and nastiness as he works to accustom himself to being a full-time center after a college career in which he was pretty much a full-time guard. Roethlisberger will be working with a whole new group of offensive linemen, plus mainly young and/or inexperienced receivers, and a rookie running back, and all of them will need the stabilizing impact of a future Hall of Fame quarterback who still has what it takes to bail them out of a tough spot with some combination of his arm talent and professional savvy.
If Roethlisberger and the offense are able to efficiently move the ball and score points as happened against the Lions, the defense will be able to lie in the weeds and take advantage of an opponent having to take some chances to match the Steelers or risk losing control of the game. And when an opponent is forced to do that, it plays right to the strengths of the defense, which include pressuring the quarterback and forcing him to make the kind of decisions that result in turnovers.
The addition of Joe Schobert gives the defense another proven playmaker and shores up a potential matchup problem, and once T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt re-take their rightful spots in the lineup, the Steelers will be a handful for every opponent on their schedule.
"I like some of the things that I've seen thus far," said Tomlin, "but these are significant days that lie ahead, not only between now and our next (preseason) game, but also just between now and Sept. 12 for us. Those aren't idle days. We've got to continue to grow, we have continued to develop people, and they have to continue to be developed. And so, we'll roll the sleeves up and go back to work tomorrow."
Based on how their yesterdays have been going, tomorrow could end up being a very nice day.