The Pittsburgh Steelers closed out their 2023 preseason with a 27-0 rout of the Atlanta Falcons on the road. I tuned in at the tail end of the 1st quarter just in time to see the 17-0 as the fade to a commercial began.
- And of course, the German-Irish Catholic in me resisted: “This is too good to be true.”
But it wasn’t. 17-0 turned to 24-0 before the half. At that point my attention shifted to dinner but by the time I checked the score again before bedtime the Steelers had authored their first preseason shut out since 2009.
Yes, the Steelers were near perfect against the Falcons and its not too much of a stretch to apply this characterization to the rest of their 2023 preseason.
But, if it is, “Only Preseason” what does it mean?
Understanding Preseason Perfection Means Focusing on Form Rather than Deed
Perfection is something you seldom associate with pro football. Things rarely go as planned. Particularly in the preseason. My first live Steelers game came in August 1990 at RFK Stadium in Washington during the preseason. That night Joe Walton’s offense was in such disarray that my father, a complete football neophyte, remarked “Those guys didn’t know what the hell they were doing.”
33 years later their successors couldn’t have offered a starker contrast.
Several figures from the stat sheet paint a picture of perfection:
- Kenny Pickett went 4-4 in the process of leading 2 touchdown drives
- The Steelers didn’t throw an incomplete pass until Mitch Trubisky failed to connect at 1:54
- Each of the top three running backs scored a touchdown
- Five players from the Steelers defense recorded sacks
- On the Falcon’s lone trip into the Red Zone, the Steelers forced and recovered a fumble
Impressive enough to remind me of Kevin Greene’s remarks following a dominating win over the San Diego Chargers during his first year in Pittsburgh when he exclaimed, “This is like the WWF, or something.” (The WWE was known as the WWF back then.)
Yes, Greene’s comment does apply to the Steelers 2023 preseason performances, and that’s a bit of a double edged sword. That win over the Chargers marked one of several moments where Bill Cowher’s squad flashed that it could be something special. Yet, when it was all said and done, harsh reality was that 1993 Steelers were not ready for prime time.
But based on what we’ve seen in preseason, for however else the ’23 Steelers season ends, we won’t saying about this team. And it’s not because of the numbers that the Steelers put up against the Falcons – Mike Tomlin was playing his starters while Atlanta rested theirs.
Pittsburgh was supposed to dominate this preseason contest. And they did. But once again it was the way that they did it.
To understand, look no further than T.J. Watt’s sack:
T.J. Watt is so back 💪 pic.twitter.com/h0FzevRLVh
— PFF (@PFF) August 24, 2023
Watt not only gets through 2, maybe 3 people to reach Taylor Heinicke, but he wraps him, twists him and slams him to the turf with the intensity that you’d expect to see in the 4th quarter of a playoff game.
Strange as it may seem, that may not have been the best play on the drive. One snap before that Elandon Roberts set the tone:
The Steelers haven't had an ILB that makes tackles in the backfield like this since Ryan Shazier was on the roster. Elandon Roberts is a heat seeking missile. pic.twitter.com/gMLk4Yntt2
— Billy Hartford (@BudDupreeFan) August 25, 2023
To paraphrase my friend and colleague Neal Coolong, when the defense opens a game authoring plays like this, they’re establishing who is the _____ in this relationship.
This translation of desire into domination wasn’t limited to the defense. The offense made its contribution:
- George Pickens stepped up and made a Lynn Swann worthy catch
- Najee Harris’ touchdown was nice, but his 12 yard run that set up the score was all about 2nd effort
- Not to be outdone, but Jaylen Warren imposed his will on his 8 yard touchdown
- Ditto Anthony McFarland. His 31 yard run was nice, but he scored his touchdown with grit
At the end of the day this was “only preseason.” And preseason can be misleading.
Last year the Steelers were undefeated in the preseason and then started 2-6. The 2016 Steelers went 1-3 in preseason and reached the AFC Championship. Looking further back, the 1988 Steelers started 3-1 in preseason and then finished 5-11, which was and remains the franchise’s worst record since the Immaculate Reception.
So here is what to make of this:
1. The Steelers have spent the 2023 excelling when they’re supposed to excel, i.e. against backups
2. They’ve also looked strong against the Bills’ starters
3. They’re backups have responded to fast starts with strong finishes
4. Throughout the Steelers have played with determination and sound execution of the fundamentals
So yes, if you’re a serious Steelers fans you should continue to say to yourself, “Its Only Preseason.” But it’s OK to do it with a smile on your face.