2023 Steelers Season Recall: Preseason Games Begin

Steel City Underground presents our 2023 Steelers Recall: a look back at Pittsburgh Steelers games and storylines from last season.

You know what they say about the preseason… and it appears to ring true. However, last Summer, Steelers fans were abuzz over what appeared to be a reloaded team ready to take it to the next level.

The Steelers were stacked with weapons on offense, with George Pickens and Calvin Austin snagging deep balls, Jaylen Warren punishing defenses on the ground, plus Diontae Johnson and Pat Freiermuth reeling in passes from a plethora of quarterbacks.

Those quarterbacks – Kenny Pickett, Mitchell Trubisky, and Mason Rudolph – all looked sharp throughout the team’s first three games. Pickett, especially, looked like he was ready to make a second-year leap to perhaps become the Steelers quarterback of the future.

The defense also looked good too, with rookies such as Joey Porter Jr. and Keeanu Benton making plays. However, Nick Herbig stood out instantly in his first game with 1.5 sacks too. And who could forget the excitement of seeing rookies Broderick Jones and Darnell Washington in action. It was an exciting time to be a fan of the Black and Gold.

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For the first game 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, having shown that several training camp items of note could translate onto the field during regulation play, albeit preseason football in this case.

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The Steelers played their second preseason game against the Buffalo Bills in Pittsburgh at Acrisure Stadium on August 19. All week, leading up to the Saturday night game for the Pittsburgh Steelers, an old grumble re-emerged from the depths of social media: that it was unfortunate that the team would have to face the Buffalo Bills during the 2023 NFL preseason. The Bills are “a juggernaut” this Steelers team wasn’t ready for. It was going to be an “ugly” game.

Those statements were very publicly shared, as were others, that tended to suggest fans and NFL insiders felt Pittsburgh wasn’t even in the same league as Buffalo.

In front of the home crowd, the Steelers put the doubters on notice. They certainly didn’t play as if they were in an exhibition game or dress rehearsal. In fact, the team struck like lightning, early, and continued to bring the heat as the Bills racked up negative yardage due to penalties and offered little real competition as the Steelers won, 27-15.

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In back-to-back weeks, Kenny Pickett went to work with the focus of a veteran. In the Steelers’ opening offensive series, Pickett led the first-team offense with ease. On the first scoring play of the game, Pickett handed the ball off to Jaylen Warren who ran for a 62-yard touchdown behind key blocks from Isaac Seumalo, Dan Moore, and – downfield – receiver Diontae Johnson.

When the Steelers defense forced a punt from Buffalo on the Bills’ first offensive series that featured Josh Allen, a nice return from Calvin Austin III set Pickett up for a quick-strike pass to tight end Pat Freiermuth for another score.

Against the Bills’ first-team defense, Pickett and the offense produced 14 points on just seven plays. He has also led three scoring drives this preseason in opening minutes of a game with just two incomplete passes and a passer rating of 149.05.

Conversely, Allen – who’s been praised high and low for his abilities as an NFL quarterback – watched his team commit multiple penalties and was unable to find the end zone before being pulled from the game.

The Steelers saw the majority of their big plays on defense come from players fans are still getting to know. Inside linebacker Cole Holcomb tipped a Matt Barkley pass that halted a Bills drive as Elijah Riley intercepted the ball in the end zone. Then, Joey Porter Jr. jumped a route and was able to snag an interception off of Barkley and made it look very easy.


The Steelers saw Nick Herbig rev-up his motor to get after Allen with solid pressure earlier in the game, and then later emulate mentor T.J. Watt with a slick move against the Bills’ right tackle to earn a strip sack on Barkley that was recovered by his teammates.

The Bills team that was on the field at Acrisure Stadium on Saturday night – at least through one quarter of play and a little more – was not comprised of depth chart players or potential members of the practice squad. It was the “star” players out there. Still, as head coach Mike Tomlin and his staff rotated in second- and third-string players, the Bills struggled to find a rhythm.

Buffalo didn’t get on the scoreboard until the final quarter of the game.

Dress rehearsal is not a phrase that should be used to describe how the Steelers approached the game or how they executed the plan: Pittsburgh looked primed for regular season play.

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The Steelers had one game left in the preseason, with a short week of final preparation before defeating the Atlanta Falcons 4-0 victory on the road on Thursday, August 24. A lot of people were quick to jump to conclusions, stating that the Steelers were playing first-teamers against a lot of Falcons backups. Still, the takeaways were exciting.

On offense, Pickett continued to show how much he has improved his game as he led two offensive series – to open the game – that each resulted in touchdowns. That made the first-team offense’s numbers five-of-five (perfect) for putting the ball in the end zone when they were on the field during the entirety of the preseason.

By the time Pickett was pulled off of the field in this game he had completed four-of-four passes for 86 yards; he was 13-15 during the preseason for 1,99 yards and two passing touchdowns for a perfect passer rating of 158.3 .

Three Steelers touchdowns came from running backs. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren were truly a one-two strike as they both scored in the first two offensive series. When the second unit came in, Anthony McFarland found the end zone to put the Steelers up 21-0. Instantly, the thoughts of Matt Canada‘s lame 2022 offense were shelved for optimism this coming season.

As for the first-team defense, T.J. Watt grabbed a sack and Elandon Roberts stuffed a run play for a four-yard loss. Later in the game, Roberts earned a sack by bursting through a gap straight at an unprotected Logan Woodside. They completely shut down Atlanta.

The first-half statistics alone reflected how dominating Pittsburgh was in the game, especially with their first-team players on the field. The Steelers logged 253 yards of offense to the Falcons’ 55 in the first half alone and took a 128-yard to 5-yard advantage in just the ground game.

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Tomlin said, “I just think it’s difficult to box without sparring,” when he was asked ahead of the game about his decision to go ahead and play first-team players in this exhibition. By exiting the preseason with a perfect 3-0 record.

Unfortunately, preseason records don’t count for a reason and all of the optimism that came with those three wins were soon out the window. We’ll cover the disappointing start to the 2023 seasons in our next column when we revisit the Steelers opening at home for the first time in ages against the San Francisco 49ers.

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