You really couldn’t have asked for a better showing from the Pittsburgh Steelers Saturday night at Heinz Field against the Detroit Lions than what they put on tape in a 26-20 win to move to 3-0 in the preseason.
I’m not saying, but I’m just saying: 24-0 is still a possibility.
All jokes aside, I was very impressed with what I saw from the first-team offense on the ground and through the air, and I am so excited to get to watch 17 games of rookies Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth in Matt Canada’s offense.
Ben Roethlisberger looked terrific Saturday night carving up the Lions’ defense, and I also liked what I saw from backups in Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins. The backups on defense became gassed down the stretch as the Lions fought their way back into the game, but overall the Steelers showed a lot to like on tape in a meaningless preseason game.
Let’s get to some grades.
QB – A
If you’re a fan of quarterbacks, the Steelers’ trio showed a lot to like on Saturday night at Heinz Field.
Roethlisberger looked outstanding in his first action of the preseason, throwing for 137 yards and two touchdowns on eight completions, hitting Diontae Johnson for 43 yards down the middle of the field, and throwing some strikes to Freiermuth in the redzone for touchdowns.
He’s going to have a great year, should his lower half stay healthy. There simply are no questions about his arm and its strength.
Once Roethlisberger came out after three drives against the Lions, Mason Rudolph came on in relief and looked good overall, throwing for 138 yards on 13 completions, leading the Steelers to two scoring drives. He showed good touch and ball placement on throws to Eric Ebron downfield and dropped a dime to JuJu Smith-Schuster on a slot fade route that Smith-Schuster couldn’t come down with through contact.
Rudolph did have an ugly near-interception near the goal line that he had no business throwing into that window. Overall though, Rudolph did a nice job Saturday night solidifying his No. 2 QB role.
As for Haskins, I like the command he showed and the mobility he flashed on his 10-yard scramble on third down to move the chains. He had a couple of deep shots float on him, including the one towards the right pylon intended for Anthony Johnson, but overall Haskins had a good night and is locked into the No. 3 QB job.
RB – B-
Harris looked pretty darn good in limited action once again. He ran downhill hard and took advantage of rushing lanes early in the game. Plus, he flashed his ability to create in space as a receiver, turning on the jets to race around the corner and down the right sideline for 46 yards, igniting the home crowd. Though the rushing numbers weren’t there for Harris, I liked what I saw in general from the rookie.
Once Harris left the game, guys like Anthony McFarland, Kalen Ballage and Jaylen Samuels were fine overall.
Ballage was the best of the bunch as a runner and probably has a real role as the No. 2 on this roster, finishing with 30 yards on seven carries. McFarland flashed in space as a receiver, but he wasn’t able to generate much as a rusher and often passed up some lanes to try and hit the home run.
Samuels put up a dud one week after a solid showing against the Philadelphia Eagles. Samuels looked slow, indecisive and lacked power and push in the pile when the Lions were there to slow him down.
WR — B+
The receivers, sans Chase Claypool Saturday night, look to be in mid-season form.
Diontae Johnson’ big 43-yard catch was the splash play the Steelers’ offense needed. The ball was slightly underthrown by Roethlisberger due to the arc of the throw, but Johnson showed great awareness and body control to avoid the big hit and secure the catch.
Smith-Schuster was outstanding on Saturday night, hauling in five passes for 39 yards, consistently moving the chains and breaking tackles, and also flashed some of his great blocking abilities, pummeling a Lions’ defender on a run block that cleared the edge for Ballage.
James Washington had a strong night too, finishing with three catches for 24 yards and even got some looks in the redzone. He’s a strong No. 4 and isn’t going anywhere.
Once the top guys left the game, I thought Ray-Ray McCloud flashed his open field ability on his 30-yard bubble screen, while Cody White did a great job as a blocker sealing the edge and taking out a second defender in the process. The Steelers really like White, and he’s shown exactly why in the last two preseason games.
TE – A
Aside from Eric Ebron’s drop on Roethlisberger’s scramble and throw to the right sideline, the tight ends were simply fantastic Saturday night.
Ebron led the Steelers with four catches for 59 yards on the night, making a couple of defenders miss after the catch to rack up some yards after catch.
Freiermuth was the star though, making two great touchdown grabs in the redzone, showing just how good he can be in the NFL.
Behind the top two, I was really impressed with Zach Gentry as a blocker against the Lions. I didn’t really keep a close eye on him last week, but I did this week and he looks so much better as a blocker. He was moving guys in the run game and sealing off the edge for boundary runs. He looks like he’s comfortably the No. 3 TE.
Kevin Rader was good as well, flashing as a blocker throughout the night, even if the Steelers’ rushing attack struggled in the second half.
The Steelers should feel very comfortable with their top four tight ends, though it remains to be seen who will be the odd man out and land on the practice squad.
OL — B-
The Lions recorded just one sack and two quarterback hits on the night, so the offensive line did a great job protecting the quarterbacks throughout the night.
In the run game, I really liked what I saw from some guys, including Kevin Dotson and Kendrick Green. Green did a great job of finishing throughout the night, putting at least two guys on their backs from what I saw, while Dotson was easily the Steelers’ best lineman of the night. He looks like Pro Bowl material already.
I will say this about Green though: he has to improve as a pass rusher. He’s good moving forward in the run game, but he really struggles in pass protection. He gave up some quick pressures Saturday night that showed off his lack of length as a pass protector. He has to improve, period.
Chukwuma Okorafor had a rough night overall from what I saw, getting beat around the edge a couple of times while struggling to get much push in the run game. He also had a game-opening false start penalty, which is never good.
Zach Banner, in his first game action since a torn ACL, looked good overall. He anchored well and didn’t look like he was favoring his knee at any point. Trai Turner looked solid as well, which is an improvement from what we’ve seen in training camp and last week against the Eagles.
Depth was good overall too. I liked seeing Dan Moore Jr. play so much at right tackle. He’s the legitimate swing tackle for the Steelers at this point, edging out Joe Haeg, who is fine veteran depth for now.
I was very pleased with Rashaad Coward, who is a bully in the run game. He loves to mix it up and move bodies and he’s a fun developmental piece along the offensive line.
DL — C-
Nothing overly good, nothing overly bad from this group.
Tyson Alualu batted a pass down at the line in limited action, Chris Wormley recorded a run stop and Cameron Heyward recorded a quarterback hit in limited action.
After those three left the game though the Lions really seemed to control the point of attack against guys like Henry Mondeaux, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Carlos Davis and Isaiah Buggs, allowing the Lions to rush for 106 yards on the night.
I’d like to see much more push and run-game strength from the young guys, but it’s a learning experience, as is the roughing the passer penalty Loudermilk was hit with in the win. Like Tomlin says, I’d rather say woe than sick ’em.
LB — C+
Melvin Ingram and Alex Highsmith simply toyed with the Lions’ tackles throughout the first half, which was so fun to watch.
Ingram looks completely healthy and will be a real problem in pass rush situations. Highsmith though, he just continues to get better and better, which should be terrifying for opposing offenses.
The guys behind Ingram and Highsmith didn’t do much to write home about, though Jamir Jones recorded half a sack in the win. Quincy Roche and Cassius Marsh were rather quiet in the win, though Marsh was held on a Lions’ touchdown run that went uncalled.
Inside, Devin Bush got a lot of run and looked fine overall. It will still take a bit for him to get his legs underneath him, but coming out of the game with health is important.
Joe Schobert looked adequate in his first action with the Steelers, recording three tackles six days after joining the Steelers, while I really liked what I saw from Marcus Allen on the night. He showed off his speed recording half a sack on a delayed blitz, though he needs to tackle better, while Robert Spillane was good coming downhill against the run, but predictably struggled in pass coverage overall, which is a real liability for him at this point.
DB — C
If the Steelers’ secondary could have just recorded a grade from the first half, this would be a lot higher for the group.
Joe Haden was fantastic Saturday night, nearly picking off a Tim Boyle pass that he baited him into, while Minkah Fitzpatrick looked great tackling in space and Terrell Edmunds flashed in coverage.
We also got a look at the possible nickel package again with Cameron Sutton sliding inside to the slot and James Pierre entering the game on the outside.
The second half was a mess though for the secondary.
Justin Layne was strong early on but faded down the stretch and gave up a couple of big plays in the fourth quarter, while Shakur Brown was cooked on a route and later called for pass interference on a play in which he made a play on the ball. Time is running out for the UDFA.
At safety, Miles Killebrew is an absolute missile, but I need him to clean up his tackling a bit. Donovan Stiner was sound as a tackler but hasn’t made a true play since the Hall of Fame Game, while Tre Norwood and Mark Gilbert were rather quiet again.
I’m sure Kevin Colbert would love to add another proven vet at the position before kickoff Sept. 12 in Buffalo.
Special Teams — B
It feels more and more like Matthew Sexton is making the Steelers’ 53-man roster. I don’t know exactly how the numbers will shake out, but he ripped off another huge punt return Saturday thanks to a great takeout block by Norwood. Sexton flashed real speed on his 47-yard punt return.
He has a knack for big plays in that department.
Chris Boswell looked outstanding in his first preseason action, drilling all four field goal attempts on the night, while I liked what I saw from Pressley Harvin III on his lone punt that he boomed 50 yards. It’s worth noting that Harvin held for Boswell on his two first-half field goals and took snaps from Christian Kuntz as part of the first unit before Jordan Berry held and Kameron Canaday snapped in the second half.
Could it be that Kuntz makes the roster over Canaday? He does have some linebacker/kick coverage versatility in a pinch. Keep an eye on that.
Overall, I liked what I saw in the kick coverage game, but what in the world happened on that onside attempt the Lions recovered? It felt like the Steelers weren’t prepared, since guys like Jamir Jones, Quincy Roche, Mark Gilbert and Marcus Baugh were on the front line. That’s not the hands team you want out there in an obvious onside kick situation, but it’s a teaching moment for Danny Smith.
One last side note: do the Lions have a punter or what? Wow, what a night for Jack Fox, who averaged 57.2 yards per punt.