Pinch Yourself? After Steelers Dominating 27-12 Preseason Win over Bills Fans Ask, “Is it OK to Believe?”

The Pittsburgh Steelers 27-15 win over the Buffalo Bills at Acrisure Stadium offered a reminder of the existential struggle that every fan of the Black and Gold faces: The temptation to believe.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers are a franchise that measures success in Lombardi Trophies.
Jaylen Warren, Steelers vs Bills 2023 preseason

Jaylen Warren runs for 62 yards. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Steelers.com

During the 70’s Jimmy Pol’s “Western Pennsylvania Polka” accurately told us that “Winning’s a habit, not only a dream.” Generation X Steelers fans grew up assuming that the team had always been good. But the growing pains we experienced as the 70’s shifted to the 80’s was learning that Super Bowl windows don’t stay open forever.

  • And once they’re closed, convincing yourself that they’ll ever reopen remains a challenge.

I can remember watching Jepoardy at some point in the mid-80’s when a Pittsburgh resident was a guest. Alex Triebec asked him if he was one of those Steelers fans who “recorded each game and watched it over and over again.”

The response? “Yes, but only when we’re in the Super Bowl. And that’s not going to happen for another 20 years.” Although Chuck Noll’s Steelers squads in the 80’s authored some stunning playoff upsets, it took the arrival of Cowher Power in 1992 for the faithful in Steelers Nation to really believe that the season might end in a Lombardi Trophy presentation.

And even then we had to wait 14 years for The Chin to make good on his promise to Dan Rooney.

Yeah. True Steelers fans stick by the Black and Gold through thick and thin, but if pressed, we’ll admit that it is difficult to let ourselves believe.

Which brings us to 2023’s preseason game number 3, and the Buffalo Bills visit to Acrisure Stadium

Steelers Domination of the Bills in Preseason Is Down Right Scary

The Steelers 27-17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers featured a lot of impressive moments. But the first string only played for one series. And the Buccaneers aren’t expected to be very good. And several of their defensive starters were out. And who really needs cautioned against jumping to conclusions after the first preseason game?

  • The second preseason game is different. It is a dress rehearsal.

It only took 6 plays – two Najee Harris runs, two Kenny Pickett passes to George Pickens and then Allen Robinson to set up Jaylen Warren’s 64 yard touchdown run. Any 62 yard run is impressive. But its the way this play unfolded that tantalizes Steelers faithful towards that temptation to believe:

You don’t need to be an X’s and O’s genius to single out the elements that signal something special:

  • Dan Moore turns his man’s back to the sideline
  • Isaac Seumalo also turns his man’s back to the opposing sideline
  • Warren sees a hole he could drive a truck through and heads for it
  • Diontae Johnson delivers a downfield block
  • Warren after he reaches the second level turns the jets on

Yes, this is “Only preseason” but these are pros executing solid fundamentals in concert.

The Bills opened their next drive with an 8 yard gain. On 2nd and 2 an NFL offense is in position to dictate to a defense. But thanks to Levi Wallace and T.J. Watt, the Bills were punting 2 plays later.

Then Calvin Austin and Danny Smith’s special teams got into the act, as Austin romped 54 yards on his first NFL punt return. The next stat line reads: K.Pickett pass deep middle to P.Freiermuth for 25 yards, TOUCHDOWN

And if all you did was read the box score, it be easy to chalk that up to preseason luck.

But Pickett not only hit Pat Freiermuth in the middle of the field – and area he avoided last season, he threaded the needle placing the ball perfectly, in triple coverage where only Mooth could get it.

Another reason to believe.

There were many more. Connor Heyward, Nick Herbig, Cole Holcomb and Tanner Muse all came up with big plays, while Chandon Sullivan, Elijah Riley and Joey Porter Jr. made interceptions. All reasons to believe.

Calvin Austin’s punt return wasn’t a one note Johnny for the Steelers special teams. Gunner Olszewski had a nice 15 yard return of his own. Danny Smith’s coverage units were strong while Chris Boswell was perfect on the night. All good signs.

  • No, Pittsburgh wasn’t perfect against the Bills.

The Steelers rushed the ball 33 times, but running backs not named Jaylen Warren looked average – at best and they didn’t have the benefit of quality run blocking. (To be fair, Anthony McFarland looked good catching the ball.) Kendrick Green mis-timed a snap to Mason Rudolph setting up Buffalo’s first touchdown.

But even of those are all things to bear in mind, the fact remains: The way the Steelers dominated the Bills is making it very hard for fans to resist the temptation to believe.

A Word about DAZN’s GamePass

Last week I skewered the viewing experience DAZN’s NFL GamePass International. This week I followed their advice and downloaded their app on to my SmartTV.

  • The results were much better.

True, my first attempt to watch the replay was unsuccessful. However, that looked to be a problem my internet connection. Image quality was a little shaky on the full replay, and I was disappointed to see that they hadn’t edited out commercials (why? If ever there would be a “Hello McFly!!!” principle of showing replays of NFL games, you’d figure editing out commercials would be one of them.)

Their Game in 40 presentation was excellent, nothing compared to the last week’s experience on the desk top. Not only was the image quality good, but they took just a little more time in between plays, and salted in some replays so that you got the flavor of the game.

 

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Steelers Sign Kwon Alexander. Lesson? Watch What Omar Khan Does, Not What He Says

Although they’ve been at St. Vincents for less than 4 full days under, the Steelers made their first personnel move by signing veteran inside linebacker Kwon Alexander.

We’ll talk about what he brings to Pittsburgh a little later, but the quick takeaway is that, as it was with Kevin Colbert, so it is with Omar Khan. Which is: Watch not what he says, but what he does.

Kwon Alexander, Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Jets

New Steelers Kwon Alexander tackles Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Khan Follows Colbert’s Footsteps

Kevin Colbert famously began the 2003 Steelers off season by defending the team’s secondary. He then promptly let longtime veteran Lee Flowers walk in free agency, tried and failed to sign Super Bowl MVP Dexter Carter, and then traded up to draft Troy Polamalu waited a few rounds, and then picked Ike Taylor.

  • During the 2023 off season the Steelers ripped their inside linebacking depth chart up root and stem.

Devin Bush’s departure was a given (as Mark Kaboly quipped, Devin Bush Sr. had a better chance of playing for the Steelers in 2023.) I strongly suspect that the Steelers were surpised to lose Robert Spillane. But even if that is true, when Spillane went to Oakland, it didn’t stop the Steelers from showing Myles Jack the door.

  • That left 2022 rookie Mark Robinson, he of 44 defensive snaps, as the “veteran” at inside linebacker.

Omar Khan quickly added Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts as the team’s starters at inside linebacker in free agency. While the Steelers address several key areas of defensive need in the 2023 NFL Draft, inside linebacker was not a position they were able to get to.

So, when Khan took questions from the media, they naturally asked him how he felt about depth at inside linebacker. Here’s Khan’s full response:

We signed the guys that we did because we felt we had to get better, and we think we’re going to be better with those guys. I’m confident with the group we have there. If there’s an opportunity to upgrade a position group, we’re always going to look at it, and if it makes sense it makes sense.

He praised his guys. Expressed confidence that they’ll improve the defense. While he left open the door to adding someone else “If t here’s an opportunity to upgrade a position group” (notice “a” the indefinite article, not “the”) he’d do it.

It sounded like Khan was content to stand pat with his current inside linebackers. And then three days later, he went out and signed Kwon Alexander.

So what is Alexander bringing to the Steelers?

Quick Look at Kwon Alexander

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made Kwon Alexander their 4th round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. He started for 3 straight seasons, until injuries derailed his career. After starting 40 games in his first 3 seasons, he started 14 over the next two, six in Tampa Bay, 8 in San Francisco.

He almost doubled that in 2020, starting 13 games, but he played for the 49ers and the New Orleans Saints after being dealt to the Big Easy. He started 8 games in New Orleans in 2021, and then went to the New York Jets, where he started 12 games in 2022.

All in all, he’s seen action in 95 NFL games, making 8 interceptions, 12.5 sacks, forcing 11 fumbles and making 49 tackles for losses. He’s seen as being strong in coverage, and his 33 passes defensed would lend credence to that, but only 3 of those passes defensed came in the last two seasons.

When asked why he opted to sign with the Steelers, Alexander explained, “I really came here cause of the defense,” further expanding that “Hard-nosed football, hit hard, run, get the ball. That’s the type of player I am.”

Terms of his contract haven’t been announced, but one can imagine it is either at or very near the veteran minimum.

In addition to Holocomb, Roberts and Robinson, the Steelers also have newcomers Tanner Muse and Nick Kwiatkoski listed as inside linebackers, but they’re seen more as special teams contributors. After finishing 2023 on Pittsburgh’s practice squad Chapelle Russell is also in the mix.

But one can imagine that Alexander is at the top of that pecking order.

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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs at Inside Linebacker – More Questions than Answers

Perhaps its fitting: It was in a win against Cincinnati in December 2013 that Vince Williams stood out enough to signal that stability was returning to the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker. Four years later Ryan Shazier’s injury at Paul Brown Stadium would destabilize that spot on the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker and the franchise is still shuffling to regain its footing.

Might they find that footing in the 2023 NFL Draft?

Mark Robinson, Gus Edwards, Steelers vs Ravens M&T Bank Stadium

Mark Robinson stops Gus Edwards. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Cart at Inside Linebacker: The (Presumed) Starters

Everyone expected the Steelers to move on from Devin Bush. And they did, without a second thought.

Who expected Robert Spillane to bolt? But bolt he did. But that didn’t stop Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin from cutting Myles Jack, the Steelers other starter from 2022 and to look outside the franchise’s comfort zone and sign not one but two inside linebackers in the form of Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts.

Holcomb brings four years and 48 games of starting experience from Washington. Elandon Roberts brings seven years of experience and 76 starts from seasons with the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins.

The Steelers once unexpectedly lost a free agent inside linebacker (Earl Holmes) and reacted by signing James Farrior, one of their best free agent pickups ever. They also reacted the the loss of Shazier by signing Jon Bostic who was pretty good on first and 2nd downs, but had to leave the field after that and hence had to leave town.

Are Holcomb and Roberts Farriors or Bostics? Today there’s no way to know.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart: The Backup

In contrast, there are a few things we know about the Steelers lone backup at inside linebacker. While conceding that he wasn’t comfortable giving rookie Mark Robinson a leading role in late season contests against the Ravens and Browns, Mike Tomlin doled out rare praise complementing the rookie:

He’s a guy that likes physical confrontation. That’s the one component of his game that has never been in question, growth and development and all other areas due to youth and lack of experience is.

The Steelers drafted Mark Robinson in the 7th round of the 2022 NFL Draft as a project. Robinson played for three schools during his college career and only moved to linebacker as a senior, spending time at running back during one of his colligate stints.

Robinson was inactive for most of 2022, only seeing his first action against Carolina, but he still played 50% of the defensive snaps against the Ravens, helping shut down a running attack that had embarrassed the Steelers just 3 weeks earlier.

The Steelers also have Tanner Muse who played safety and then “linebacker” for the Seattle Seahawks. Muse is seen mainly as a special teams signing, but Pittsburgh is listing him as a linebacker.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Steelers Draft Needs Scale 2023

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Inside Linebacker

The Steelers are thin at inside linebacker. Yes, they appear to used free agency to bring one legitimate starter and one starter capable linebacker in free agency and they have a solid up and coming rookie. But is that enough to be comfortable?

Not by a longshot. The Steelers started 2020 with Devin Bush, Vince Williams and Robert Spillane as their top three linebackers, and by December their starting duo in the middle was Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen.

Everyone remembers Ben Roethlisberger‘s horrible performance in 2020 disaster at Cincinnati, but check the running stats to see how well the Allen-Williamson duo worked out. (Yes, there’s that Cincinnati-Inside Linebacker-Steelers axis rotating again.)

Taking that into account, the Steelers need at inside linebacker going 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as High.

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