10 Thoughts: Mission accomplished in the preseason opener

TAMPA, Fla. – It wasn't everything we've seen from the Steelers offense at Saint Vincent College, but Friday night's 27-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to open the preseason showed just what has people so excited about with this offense.

There was second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett going 6-of-7 for 70 yards and a touchdown on the opening drive, dissecting the Tampa Bay defense like a surgeon.

Diontae Johnson was his main target on that drive, catching three passes for 32 yards and moving the chains.

Then, on third-and-8, he found second-year receiver George Pickens over the middle for a gain that would have picked up the first-down yardage. Only Pickens wanted more.

He shook off a would-be tackler, faked another out of his shoes and scampered untouched the rest of the way for a 33-yard touchdown, picking up the final 20 on his own.

"We've got more stuff in store, for sure," said Pickens.

More stuff, indeed.

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Najee Harris didn't run the ball at all on that possession – by design – though he did catch one pass. So did tight end Pat Freiermuth.

Veteran receiver Allen Robinson, brought in to be the top slot option, was out there, as well, but didn't draw a target. Second-year pro Calvin Austin finished with two catches for 73 yards – including a 63-yard touchdown – and two carries for 23 yards, but didn't do any of that damage on the opening possession when the first-team offense was out there.

There's plenty of meat on the bone for this offense.

"It's really just a sample of what's to come," said Johnson. "It's really just getting us on the move and allowing us to make plays after the catch. That's really what they've been harping on, not having us running the same patterns, just stretching the field and knowing certain plays to call when certain guys are in there."

There's a budding confidence with this offense in Pickett's second season. After working together for a large part of last season and now having an entire offseason to get a feel for each other, the little things are clicking.

"It's just knowing where to be at when he breaks the pocket," said Johnson. "And really, wherever he places the ball at, it's making the catch on it. You see it in training camp. We're moving fast. The o-line is moving with a purpose. Everybody is moving with a purpose out there. Everybody is hungry. The energy is different. We just want to win. You saw the first drive, how we came out applying pressure. That's what we're talking about, starting fast."

This was a good start to that.

"I thought we saw some things we wanted to see," said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. "The first-unit offense, Kenny spread the ball around, kept himself clean, moved the group. We were able to check that box and get them a quality rep in the process."

• That was not only a highly accurate throw that Pickett made to Pickens for the touchdown, fitting it into a tight window over the middle, it was an arm-strength throw, as well.

Throwing over the middle was supposed to be an issue for Pickett. It hasn't been in training camp and it wasn't in this game.

Game action photos from the Week 1 preseason game at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium

More importantly, Pickens wasn't Pickett's first read on that play.

"I was working left and then came back to George on it," Pickett said. "We've been working that, kind of an in-breaking route. (It was) man-to-man coverage, so it was good to see him separate. The run-after-the-catch was awesome to see."

But hitting Pickens in stride on that throw allows for that, as well.

• The defense was without a number of key players, but still more than held its own, as well.

Now, to be fair, the Bucs were sitting a number of starters, but they had their first-team offensive line out there in front of quarterback Baker Mayfield with the exception of left tackle Tristan Wirfs and guard Matt Feiler.

But a defense missing Cam Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi, Minkah Fitzpatrick and T.J. Watt, among others, more than held its own, allowing one first-half touchdown.

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• Maybe the big plays will be back in the offense this season.

The Steelers' longest touchdown last season was 31 yards. They hadn't had a touchdown of more than 60 yards since early in the 2020 season.

In this game, they had the 33-yard catch-and-run by Pickens and followed that up with Mason Rudolph connecting with Calvin Austin III on a 67-yard score.

Throw in a 14-yard touchdown run by Anthony McFarland on which he would have scored from 50 yards out, if necessary, and you see the big-play potential of this offense.

"Ant's had a great camp," said Rudolph. "And you saw what GP did out there. We're moving in the right direction."

• The second-team defensive line of ends DeMarvin Leal and Isaiahh Loudermilk along with nose tackle Keeanu Benton was very active in the first half shutting down running lanes and pressuring the quarterback.

Leal had five tackles and half a sack, Loudermilk had three tackles, including one for a loss, as did Benton before leaving in the second half with an ankle injury.

That's a good sign for the future when you have three talented, young defensive lineman like that.

Rookie Nick Herbig also had 1.5 sacks in his first action.

"It felt good to be out there," said Herbig. "I've been learning so much from T.J. (Watt), Alex (Highsmith) and Markus (Golden). I'm just glad I was able to get in there and do some things."

• It was a hot night, but first-round pick Broderick Jones played the remainder of the game at left tackle after Dan Moore Jr. got the nod with the first-team offense on the opening drive.

That added up to about 50 snaps for the rookie.

"(We) gave him big exposure," said Tomlin. "I like his demeanor. I like how he finished. We'll come through it specifically and look at hand usage and how he mixed up his protections and some of the things that are very technical that are major components of this level of play."

• Austin is fast.

He's going to be a weapon for the Steelers this season.

So too, is tight end/fullback/football player Connor Heyward.

Heyward had some explosive plays last season, including a 46-yard catch. He's going to be a matchup nightmare for opponents this season.

Put a linebacker on him, and he's too quick for most. Put a defensive back on him and you're pulling a coverage guy off someone else while his strength will be an issue for a defensive back.

And the problem for opponents will be, when Heyward is on the field, is he lining up at fullback in the backfield, or is he detached as a tight end.

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• Rookie B.T. Potter isn't going to unseat Chris Boswell as the Steelers' placekicker. But it was good to see him have a perfect night kicking.

Potter connected on field goals of 30 and 43 yards and hit all three of his PATs. His kickoffs also were good.

In a kicker-starved league, Potter might not have a job in Pittsburgh when it's all said and done, but he showed he can be a viable option in the NFL.

• Tomlin had to be pleased that the Steelers had just six penalties while the Bucs were flagged 12 times.

Oftentimes when you have a bunch of young guys in their first NFL action, nerves become an issue. And that leads to more mistakes.

There was some of that, to be sure, but the Steelers weren't highly penalized, something the Bucs could not say.

That's a good sign.

• There wasn't any scripting of plays in this game. It was more about running a vanilla offense and defense.

Next week's game against the Bills at home figures to be a bigger test on both sides of the ball.

But it was beneficial for the team to go on the road and go through that routine, especially with so many new players on the roster.

It's good to allow the players to get into the flow of how Tomlin and his coaching staff like to handle things for a road game.

"They're young guys, but they have some experience now," Tomlin said. "We asked them to maybe step outside of themselves in the lead up to performance and get a feel for the group. What does the process of the group's preparation look like?

"(I) enjoyed that. I think it teed up the performance you saw."