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The Steelers raised expectations even higher with their win over the Falcons

The Steelers took on the Falcons on Thursday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in their preseason finale.

I continued my summer of 2023 tradition of not watching the exhibition matchup that closely. This isn’t to say I didn’t want to see Pittsburgh take on the Falcons down in Hotlanta. But Thursday is my PSL running group night, and I’d much rather hang out with those people than watch a meaningless preseason game.

I did try to pay attention, however, and the end of my run coincided with the start of the game. As is my custom after a group run, I decided to compromise my workout by partaking in some libations. While standing in line at the Galley Bakery Square in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty area, I looked up at one of the flatscreen TVs just in time to see quarterback Kenny Pickett connect with receiver George Pickens on a 35-yard pass down to the Atlanta one-yard line. I glanced up again seconds later and watched running back Najee Harris crash over the goal line to give Pittsburgh a quick 7-0 lead.

It’s hard to keep track of the exact timeline of the game without referencing ESPN’s box score, so bear with me. I was outside moments later, with drink in hand, talking to some friends when I looked up at the big flatscreen TV at the Galley and saw T.J. Watt bodyslam Falcons quarterback Taylor Heineke to the turf for a wicked sack. The first thing I said after that was, “OK, get him out of there now before he hurts himself.” This drew some laughter.

I stayed with the action for a bit because I knew that Calvin Austin would likely be receiving a punt soon. He did, and he returned it 21 yards down to the Atlanta 29. I glanced up seconds later (seemingly, at least) to witness Jaylen Warren fight through the entire Falcons’ defense (seemingly, at least) for an eight-yard touchdown run to give Pittsburgh a 14-0 first-quarter lead.

I said to myself (seemingly in my head, but who’s to say with the libations in my hand?), “Where have I seen this before?” Oh, right, it was just a few days earlier when the Steelers jumped out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead in their dress rehearsal preseason game against the Bills at Acrisure Stadium on Saturday night.

My party moved to a table not long after this, and I really did stop paying attention. Having said that, I did glance over in time to see a field goal that I thought belonged to the Falcons. Nope, it was a 38-yarder courtesy of Chris Boswell’s right foot that gave Pittsburgh a 17-0 first-quarter lead.

Running back Anthony McFarland scored on a five-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter to give the Steelers a 24-0 lead, a lead that would ultimately become the final score.

I didn’t see McFarland’s touchdown, but the texts began flying back and forth with family and friends immediately afterward.

What was the main sentiment of these texts? The Steelers had elevated regular-season expectations to levels nobody was expecting when the preseason kicked off on August 11.

Yes, I realize that Atlanta played its second and third-string personnel, while the Steelers began the game with their top guns, but that hardly matters to the overall narrative.

Thursday night’s win capped off an undefeated exhibition season for the Steelers. Pickett couldn’t have turned in a better three games, as all five possessions with him under center led to touchdowns.

It’s hard to find anything to truly be critical of when discussing Pittsburgh’s three preseason victories. Mostly everyone looked great, from starters to backups to incoming rookies.

You know how this works, right? The Steelers are now going to be expected to show up and show out big time when they take on the San Francisco 49ers in the 2023 regular-season opener at Acrisure Stadium on September 10.

Have we been sold a bill of goods with this Steelers preseason, or is this just the natural evolution of a talented, young football team that’s been rebuilding for a few years and finally has enough pieces in place to make some real noise in the AFC?

Is it unrealistic to expect Pittsburgh to line up against one of the NFC’s best teams and perform at a high level right out of the gate? You might say yes, but the Steelers walked away with a Week 1 road win against one of the AFC’s top contenders in 2021–the Bills–and performed a similar feat against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium to open up the 2022 regular season.

I don’t know how the Steelers’ 2023 regular season will play out, but thanks to their overall performance in the preseason, the expectations have been raised to heights we didn’t think were possible when training camp began on July 26.

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