It’s always wise to caution putting any stock in the results of Steelers preseason games.
Especially with this 3-0 start in 2021. After all, the Steelers are playing nothing but NFC teams that finished out of the playoffs — and with sub-.500 records — in 2020.
Over the first two weeks, they beat the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles. Then they handled the Detroit Lions, 26-20, Saturday night at Heinz Field. Now only the Carolina Panthers remain next Friday before the real games begin.
But one thing is becoming clear with the ‘21 Steelers. Areas where the team looked to be dangerously thin have definitely been bolstered.
In fact, some of those perceived trouble spots suddenly appear to have legitimate depth.
That theory is supported by the combined 36-0 score of the three games after halftime in favor of the Steelers, before Detroit’s 20-3 fourth-quarter outburst Saturday. Until that point, one could conclude that as the depth charts went deeper, the Steelers seemed to have significantly better results than their opponents.
“We are still very much developing it,” Tomlin said of his team’s depth. “I like some of the things that I’ve seen thus far. But these are significant days that lie ahead. … We have to continue to grow. We have to continue to develop people. They have to continue to be developed.”
For now, though, let’s forget about how the Steelers’ potential practice squad guys outgunned the “nameless grey faces” of those other three teams. Instead, let’s focus on some of those second-line players in Pittsburgh who could be important pieces of the Steelers attack in 2021.
Pat Freiermuth’s two touchdown receptions from Ben Roethlisberger Saturday indicate he could be the second receiving threat at tight end the Steelers envisioned when they picked him in the second round of this year’s draft.
“Whenever the ball comes my way, I have to make plays. That’s why they drafted me where they did,” Freiermuth said. “I like scoring touchdowns. I like celebrating with the fans, celebrating with my teammates.”
The acquisitions of Joe Schobert and Melvin Ingram were immediate patches to the thin ranks at inside and outside linebacker, respectively. Ingram’s contributions were on display Saturday with a big tackle for loss on running back Dedrick Mills at Detroit’s own 4-yard line and a hurry of quarterback Tim Boyle two snaps later.
That’s in addition to frequent disruptions from the likes of starter Alex Highsmith, rookie Quincy Roche, Cassius Marsh and Jamir Jones throughout the preseason. Suddenly the question of “Who will offset the loss of Bud Dupree?” appears to have multiple answers instead of multiple shoulder shrugs.
Along the defensive line, rookie Isaiahh Loudermilk and second-year player Carlos Davis have flashed at times in games and in practices, perhaps quelling any panic that may ensue if there is an injury to Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt or Tyson Alualu.
In the secondary, fretting over how the defensive backs will align beyond the starting four of Cameron Sutton, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joe Haden and Terrell Edmunds likely won’t be answered any time before the regular season starts.
However, with a pass breakup Saturday, an interception last week and a forced fumble against Detroit, third-year cornerback Justin Layne has managed to show some signs of figuring out the NFL. Meanwhile, rookie Tre Norwood’s versatility and above-the-neck game plus James Pierre’s athletic ability are yielding additional options.
Even both punters — Jordan Berry and Pressley Harvin III — have been excellent. Although, they were barely used Saturday, with Harvin booming a 50-yarder in his lone attempt.
Perhaps most importantly, the quarterbacks behind Roethlisberger have been good. Most of the conversation this week will be about how Roethlisberger’s first-team unit overcame a shaky first drive to go on two scoring marches before taking a seat.
Then his replacements, Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins, combined to go 17 of 25 for 194 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. Over the three preseason games, Haskins and Rudolph are a combined 55 of 78 for 570 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions with a passer rating of 95.6.
“Stats can be deceiving sometimes,” Rudolph said after leading three drives that resulted in field goals. “You can play better than the statline. You can play worse than the statline. I’m confident in our head coach and our general manager (Kevin Colbert) to evaluate games. But I felt good. Getting some points on the board felt good. But we’d rather get seven and not three. “
Let’s be honest. Whatever postseason aspirations the Steelers may have likely won’t be determined by many of the names you’ve read here.
Well, until they have to be.
As was the case in 2019 when Roethlisberger had to be replaced by a less experienced Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. Or in 2020 when attrition caught up to the defense when players such as Dupree, Haden, Devin Bush, Vince Williams, Mike Hilton and Robert Spillane all missed chunks of time due to injury or covid-19.
Should such situations arise again in 2021, maybe the results won’t be quite as dire as they have been recently when late December fades have undermined those aspirations we just mentioned.