Steelers Stock Report: Buffalo Bills preseason Week 2 edition
I honestly wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own two eyes. Last week, in the Steelers first preseason game of the 2023 season, the Steelers dominated the rebuilding Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a road contest that wasn’t as close as the final score would suggest. The final tally shouldn’t have come as much of a shock to either fanbase, as the Steelers are nearing the conclusion of their rebuild, while the Buccaneers are just starting theirs.
So what would the surging Steelers do for an oncore? Week 2 of the preseason brought the AFC championship contenders Buffalo Bills to the not so friendly confines of Acrisure Stadium on Saturday afternoon. This was a much stiffer test for the young but talented Steelers, or at least it appeared that way on paper. But as we know, looks can be deceiving, and it was more of the same for the Steelers. It’s not just that the Steelers dominated, it’s the manner in which they dominated.
Some of the standouts for the Steelers this week earned mention in the Stock Report article last week, but there are multiple first timers deserving mention this week. Both of these developments are extremely exciting. So without further ado, let’s take a look at the fortunate few.
Stock Trending Up: Kenny Pickett
Pickett leads off the stock up portion of the article once again this week, which truly reflects a trend for the talented young signal caller. Pickett is arguably the most important player for the Steelers this season, definitely on the offensive side of the ball. So far, so good. Pickett has turned an impressive offseason of hard work into substantial improvement displayed through the first couple of preseason contests.
All Pickett has done this preseason thus far is engineer touchdown drives. A perfect three for three. His renewed confidence reveals itself in his calculated risk assessment, and his poise inside and outside the pocket. Pickett’s impressive accuracy and improved velocity was on full display during his two TD drives in the first quarter against the Bills starters.
Pickett ripped a sideline frozen rope to George Pickens for the Steelers initial first down of the game. His footwork, throwing motion, and velocity made what would have been a more difficult throw last season seem pretty routine this preseason. Then Pickett hit Freiermuth for a touchdown down the seam during the Steelers second drive. Pickett quickly realized that the Bills linebacker in coverage had his back turned, and he punished the Bills reeling defense by perfectly placing the ball between the linebacker and deep safety.
Mitch Trubisky produced a much stronger performance than he achieved during the first preseason game, while Mason Rudolph came back down to earth. The fans can continue to debate who the Steelers QB2 should be, but there’s no doubt who the Steelers starting QB should be, thankfully.
Stock Trending Up: Nick Herbig
Another player making a repeat appearance on this list of overachievers. Herbig exploded out of the gates, and into the national consciousness after his breakout performance against the Buccaneers. Unbelievably, he was even more impressive against the Bills. Why is that? Because he did the majority of his damage in the first half against the Bills starters.
After producing numerous tackles and pressures in the first half as part of the edge rotation, Herbig pulled off a Matrix type bend and blast off the edge to produce a strip sack of the QB. A fumble he was about to recover before his teammate Tanner Muse just beat him to the football.
Herbig showed the pass rush characteristics of an elite level edge rusher during training camp, and he has turned those abilities into production during his limited preseason opportunities. His quick twitch get off, bend, balance, and motor are all on an elite level. Herbig’s run stuffing abilities have been a pleasant surprise.
I get the sneaky suspicion that we are all witnessing the start of something special.
Stock Status Unclear: Running game
In my opinion, it remains to be seen if the Steelers rushing attack has actually improved as much as many fans perceive it has. The Steelers running game has definitely shown improved explosive qualities this preseason, but outside of McFarland utilizing his speed to bounce a inside run outside for a TD, Calvin Austin’s jet sweeps, and Jaylen Warren’s long TD gallop against the Bills, the Steelers highly anticipated rushing attack has been consistently mediocre.
The Steelers have failed to establish their stated goal of dominating the line of scrimmage. The main reason is twofold; the Steelers starting offensive line has barely played together this preseason, mostly because the Steelers explosive starting offense has scored so quickly every time they have been on the field together.
I wouldn’t consider this a concern normally, but two observations gleaned from camp reports honestly gives me pause. The Steelers run blocking was sloppy and inconsistent during the last week of camp, and Dan Moore appears to have won the left tackle competition against first round rookie Broderick Jones. Jones’ pass blocking simply isn’t on par with his run blocking, and he has given up sacks in both preseason games. That’s a concern because RT Chukwuma Okorafor continues to struggle with run blocking consistency.
Stock Trending Up: Random observations
- Everyone will be talking about Joey Porter Jr’s first career interception, but I was more impressed by his press technique against Bills superstar WR Stephon Diggs during his first NFL series. That ability is more important to me than the occasional interception.
- The aforementioned Jaylen Warren’s sixty some yard TD run was electrifying, but it will do nothing to silence a certain segment of the fanbase hellbent on seeing Warren supplant Harris as the starting RB. For what it’s worth, Harris hasn’t broken a sweat this preseason with a grand total of 2 carries.
- Connor Heyward continues to display the instincts of an old school football player. He is more athletic than given credit for, and has a natural feel for finding soft spots in zone coverage. An extremely versatile weapon as a do-it-all H-back.
- Calvin Austin III is a serious threat to take any touch to the house, due to his elite level speed and elusiveness. His first NFL punt return almost went for a TD, and he has already shown the ability to be effective as an outside receiver.
- The Steelers are still trying to figure just what they have in Darnell Washington. He would really benefit from more reps with Kenny Pickett.
- The Steelers received a very workman like effort from the inside linebacker rotation against the Bills. Nothing spectacular, but always attacking and physical. Cole Holcomb flashed the abilities that Steelers fans had been waiting to see.
- The Steelers slot corner position battle is a two man competition between Elijah Riley and Chandon Sullivan. Neither is a complete slot corner, and both have unique strengths to their games. I thought it was an either or situation entering training camp, but now I expect both to make the final roster. Mainly due to Riley’s versatility, and outstanding special teams performances.