Takeaways: Steelers beat Bucs in first preseason game of 2023

On Friday night, at Raymond James Stadium, the Pittsburgh Steelers accomplished something they were only able to do twice all of the 2022 NFL regular season: score a touchdown during their opening offensive series. The Steelers went on to win the game, 27-17, on the road having shown that several training camp items of note could translate onto the field during regulation play, albeit preseason football in this case.

The measurement of success during the exhibition games of the NFL preseason is how well coaching staff are able to get players, especially a new crop of personnel that has been added to the mix through the NFL Draft and free agency, to execute what has been practiced. In the case of the Steelers, the question will be – throughout the next few weeks – if the team can meet that challenge and improve, ready for regular season play success. Friday night, there were several of those types of questions that seemed to have been answered.

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Quarterback Kenny Pickett has been a primary focus for Steelers fans during the entirety of the offseason and has been showing truly promising results thus far in training camp. In the opening drive, the second-year quarterback looked poised and confident as he commanded the offense. Pickett looked like a veteran as he lasered passes to Diontae Johnson and Pat Freiermuth. On third-and-long, he didn’t panic or force a play, but got out of the pocket to avoid pressure and timed a slick pass to Johnson along the right sideline to get the first down. On a play that saw Yaya Diaby and Mike Greene in the perfect position to dump Pickett into the turf, the young quarterback smartly and safely got rid of the ball and went right back to the huddle to set up a new play.

That very next play was a perfectly-thrown pass through the traffic created by Zyon McCollum and K.J. Britt that led receiver George Pickens in stride in the middle of the field. Pickens easily handled the accurate strike and was able to avoid tacklers to grab the first touchdown of the game and make it look very easy.

Celebrating a bit after the play, it showed the kind of chemistry that the duo had built in 2022 was carrying over nicely from camp to the playing field under the big lights.

“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,” Pickett stated after the game. “It was a good drive, you know, but I’m not going to look too much into it yet.”

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Defensively, Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin opted to go for less established playmakers in favor of evaluating the talent as they gently refine and retool their defense with several new pieces on their chessboard. For fans who were looking at a roster sheet to see who was actually on the field, a few surprises came up with really nice plays. Inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski had a sack on quarterback Kyle Trask. Safety Trenton Thompson undercut a Trask pass to grab an interception. Those are the types of play that make a difference in big games.

The play of outside linebacker Nick Herbig and lineman Keeanu Benton raised some eyebrows, though. Herbig certainly looked primed to be the third EDGE in a Steelers defense that already has former Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt and newly-extended Alex Highsmith entrenched on the outside. Herbig was disruptive and looked quick getting off the snap and making plays, including the 1.5 sacks earned in the game. Benton, a guy many thought would primarily be used to stuff the run as a potential nose tackle, destroyed the Tampa line on a big burst to absolutely smother running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn‘s run lane and allowed Isaiahh Loudermilk to make a three-yard tackle for a loss. Benton did have an ankle issue following the game that will be worth tracking, but if his performance in one game is an indication of things to come… get ready Steelers Nation.

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Some other observations worth noting from this game:

Despite looking completely dwarfed when standing next to Darnell Washington (the “Mount Washington” jokes are going to keep coming because the guy is a force unto himself), fourth-round draft selection (2022) Calvin Austin makes up in quickness what he lacks in size. Listed at five-feet-seven, he didn’t look intimidated as he grabbed two passes and took them for 73 yards in his first career preseason game after missing all of his rookie season due to a foot injury.

The Steelers were able to get all four of their camp quarterbacks into the game. Mitchell Trubisky was less than impressive as the guy to earn snaps immediately after Pickett left the game; he went one-of-four in passing attempts for ten yards and an interception. Mason Rudolph, in his time on the field, went seven-of-twelve for 132 yards and a touchdown. Rookie Tanner Morgan, who was undrafted this year, played the second half of the third quarter through the remainder of the game. It will be interesting to see how the snaps are divided when the Steelers play their second preseason game against the Buffalo Bills in Pittsburgh at Acrisure Stadium on August 19.

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