Find out some things about Ryan Shazier. And Markus Wheaton, too. Get a look at Troy Polamalu just to make sure. Find a way to win without compromising the plan for a preseason game. Finish some offensive drives in the end zone. Keep making big plays on defense.
If somewhere there existed a check-list of things the Steelers wanted to accomplish last night at Heinz Field, those half-dozen items listed above would have been on it. This team is far from a finished product, and there still are way too many days/practices/games between now and Sept. 7 to string the 'Mission Accomplished' banner across the entrance to the South Side practice facility serving as home base for the rest of their preseason, but there can be no denying it's easier to feel good about the 2014 Steelers.
Their 19-16 win over the Buffalo Bills, as their former coach once eloquently explained, "was no Mozart." They missed an extra point, and a lot of tackles on defense. The offense when Ben Roethlisberger wasn't the quarterback was pathetic. They rushed for 35 yards on 18 attempts, and 17 of those yards came on scrambles by quarterback Bruce Gradkowski. Their opponent converted a higher percentage of third downs and held a 10-plus minute edge in time of possession.
Indeed, there are many aspects of this performance for their coaches to turn into teaching points, and that's a good thing with a trip to Philadelphia to face Chip Kelly's Eagles looming in their very near future. But that's what's next. What just was deserves to be viewed as a major step forward.
What the Steelers got from Shazier's debut performance – nine tackles and an interception on defense, plus two tackles on special teams – is confirmation that he is the player they believe they drafted on the first round. He found the football and got there quickly on running plays, he was physical, and his interception of an E.J. Manuel pass for tight end Scott Chandler was a play very few NFL inside linebackers can make. It's now clear that Shazier deserved to line up with the first-team defense on the first snap of OTAs, and no boo-boo is capable of costing him his spot.
What Wheaton did in the back corner of the end zone helped make the case that he is a starting-caliber NFL receiver. The throw from Ben Roethlisberger was a thing of beauty, and Wheaton took care of his end of the play in a fundamentally sound fashion – clean catch, two feet down, maintain possession throughout. Textbook. And Wheaton's catch converted the first offense's only red zone opportunity.
The Troy thing had to do with not really seeing him do much of anything on the practice fields during the team's time at Saint Vincent College. Polamalu did not participate in any of the tackling drills at camp, he didn't play in the preseason opener. Against the Bills, Polamalu shook off the rust quickly, and showed he still has the necessary speed, aggressiveness, and instincts. Put him in bubble wrap now until Sept. 7.
The Steelers took the field against the Bills having lost five straight preseason games, mainly because they weren't getting exactly what Vic So'oto and Howard Jones combined to give them in the final 100-some seconds last night at Heinz Field. With the game tied, 16-16, and the Bills in possession of the ball, it seemed as though the best the Steelers could hope for was overtime, always the absolute last resort during the preseason. Anyway, that's when So'oto's sack/strip was scooped by Jones, who rumbled for 19 yards before going down at the 1-yard line. Field goal as time expired. Ball game. And no overtime.
Training camp is over, and two preseason games are in the books. Things are starting to come together for the 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers. What they showed against the Buffalo Bills proved that.