What an encouraging opening to the preseason for the Pittsburgh Steelers, coming out on top with a 27-17 victory. In this article I will provide data from Pro Football Focus (PFF) and takeaways from watching the film.
The highest PFF grade on offense and in the game for Pittsburgh was tight end Connor Heyward, and impressive 93.7 in a very solid game, with two catches including a nice explosive play and a well-rounded game overall. Wide receiver Diontae Johnson had the second-best offensive grade (91.1), catching all three of his targets in an encouraging opening drive with the starters.
Three other players had scores in the 80’s starting with quarterback Mason Rudolph. He went 7/12 for 132 yards and a triple explosive touchdown to wide receiver Calvin Austin, who I thought would be higher in the grades. Wide receiver George Pickens (81.4) was the second, catching the other explosive touchdown that was so refreshing to see, providing this and yards after catch (YAC) that was so seldom in 2022 for Pittsburgh. Tight end Rodney Williams just made this list (80.4), landing a bit higher than I expected, catching one of his two targets, and used as a run blocker often.
Quarterback Kenny Pickett just missed the cut (79.0), who I expected to be higher, looking sharp with accuracy and velocity in his lone drive that ended in the end zone. We see four players with below 50 grades: wide receiver Cody White, center Kendrick Green, tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, and quarterback Tanner Morgan. Definitely on board with this list, as you’ll see if you check out these film notes.
The Steelers starting offense came on at 12:53, with Pickett finding wide Johnson on the short catch and run for eight yards. On second and two, Pickett goes short over the middle to tight end Pat Freiermuth for six yards and the first down. The drive continued with a swing pass to running back Najee Harris, who churned the initial defender, but the defense rallied for a loss of one. On second and 11, running back Jalen Warren gets the toss to the right, with Okorafor unable to connect on the second level block, limiting the gain to a yard. Third and ten now, Okorafor was beat inside, and Pickett slides and keeps his eyes downfield, throwing to Johnson at the sticks along the sideline for 11 yards and another first down.
Warren continued the drive with another run, a nice ten-yard gain with good blocks from wide receiver Allen Robinson II, along with rookie tight end Darnell Washington and Zach Gentry. Another first down, and Pickett connects with Johnson once again, this one a play-action roll to the left, a chunk 13-yard gain on a crossing route. This first down was back to Warren on the ground, a battle in the trenches, with Washington’s man getting inside and tackling the two yards gain. On second and eight, Okorafor is beat and allows pressure on Pickett, who does a good job to avoid the sack with a throwaway.
Third and eight now and good collective blocking including a late Okorafor pancake, and Pickett throws a laser Pickens short over the middle, makes a man miss, and provides big YAC and for the explosive play 33-yard touchdown. Many encouraging things on display for the starting offense overall, 7-0 Pittsburgh.
Following the stellar opening drive, out came the second unit. Returning with the same score at 3:24 in the first quarter, running back Anthony McFarland runs it for a three-yard gain, where wide receiver Gunner Olszewski couldn’t connect on the pulling block on the defensive end (tough assignment). On second and seven, it’s another McFarland run following jet sweep action, hit behind the line due to a whiff off the snap from Green, able to spin and work forward for one yard. Third and six now, and Tampa Bay brings pressure, and quarterback Mitch Trubisky gets rid of it, but on different pages with Olszewski and the pass hits the turf. Three and out.
The first play of Trubisky’s second series was a deep pass to the right side, a bit underthrown for White, who had to slow up, and it’s contested well and intercepted off the pass breakup.
At 10:04 in the second quarter and the game tied, Austin got the jet sweep, and we finally got to see his speed in an NFL stadium, getting around the edge defender easily for a nice 17-yard gain. The following first down, Trubisky play-actions but can’t get his pass past the free rushing linebacker, who bats it incomplete. On second and ten, Pittsburgh goes right back to Austin on another jet sweep to the same side (left), finding a sliver of space between good Washington and Gentry blocks for six yards, despite the defense being more ready for it.
Third and four now, and Trubisky finds Heyward for the completion over the middle, despite tackle Le’Raven Clark getting beat to the inside and allowing the hit, for a nice catch for ten yards and the conversion. This set up first down in the red zone, and the handoff goes to McFarland along with good collective blocking (Olszewski on the edge), who is able to read a bad angle by the defensive back and bounce the run outside for the 14-yard touchdown! Steelers up 14-7.
Returning at 5:12, and Rudolph is in now. His first down pass is an incompletion, a wobbly out route that falls short, intended for Austin. On second and ten, Heyward gets the handoff, aligning at running back for a five-yard gain behind decent collective blocking. Third and five now, and yet another penalty on Tampa Bay, on a five-yard illegal contact setting up a fresh set of downs, with Green getting pushed back handily, and rookie left tackle Broderick Jones had a nice block around the arc. Pittsburgh’s turn for a penalty here though, with Green caught for an offensive holding on the run play, negating a big 16-yard McFarland run.
On first and 20, and another poor rep from Green, this one a bad snap that Rudolph has to chase for the recovery, but an unfortunate loss of 16. Second down and a long 36 now, Rudolph completes to McFarland short to McFarland for just five. Third and 31, and Rudolph is sacked, unable to get the throwaway off in time with guard Nate Herbig’s man winning inside for a loss of nine. Fourth and 40, yikes.
The offense returned with 1:10 seconds left in the first half. On first down, Rudolph completes the short pass to Olszewski for a gain of 14, including a good pass block from Jones. The following first down, Rudolph finds Heyward from tight end alignment deep right for a nice explosive 24-yard gain, despite Clark getting beat again, timeout to try and get another score before halftime. The third consecutive first down was another deep shot, this one down the left sideline intended for Austin, but incomplete against good coverage. On second and ten, Rudolph drops back, but the Bucs overload blitz gets home on his step up for the sack, timeout #2.
Third and 14 now, and Rudolph surveys with good collective pass pro, then scrambles for 15 yards, just enough for the first down before sliding down, and Pittsburgh burns their final timeout. 20 seconds left and in the red zone, Rudolph completes to White, but it is over the middle, and instead of going down, tries and fails to get out of bounds. The offense has just enough time to get to the line for the spike, getting the field goal to go up 17-7 at halftime. Nice job getting in scoring position.
Coming on to start the second half, Rudolph underthrows Austin on a go route deep, which is bailed out by a defensive pass interference. The following first down was a toss left to running back Greg Bell for a gain of two on a good run fill, and noted Gentry with a solid seal. On second and eight, Rudolph finds Washington for the short catch, with a bit of YAC and gain of nine for the first down. Running back Darius Hagans got the carry here, a gain of three where Gentry had a good pulling block along with good push from Jones.
On second and seven, Rudolph throws quick, incomplete to White who got open on a good route, but drops it off his hands. Third and seven now, and Rudolph bails the pocket early, sensing blindside pressure but Jones wins late to pancake his man, and tries to direct Olszewski, but ultimately throws it away. Pittsburgh settles for the field goal, lead increases to 20-7. Could definitely get used to seeing these kind of numbers on the scoreboard.
Back at 9:56, Rudolph slides left and hits Austin on the quick out route from the slot for the catch and gain of six. On second and four, Bell rushes for six yards, with the o-line clearing good space overall for a first down. The following first down was back to Austin, who flew by the defensive back down the sideline from wide alignment, and Rudolph airs it out to him despite taking a hit (poor pass pro from Bell) for the triple explosive 67-yard touchdown. Ecstatically refreshing to see after explosive play struggles last year, with two going for touchdowns in this game. I know, preseason, but still…
At 4:57 and a 20-point lead, it’s time to see the back end of the roster. This included quarterback Tanner Morgan, who rolled right off play-action and completed his first pass short right to tight end Rodney Williams, with some YAC for a gain of 11. On the following first down, Hagans gets the carry for four yards, with a good second level block from Jones, and good initial seal from Williams, but is then thrown to the turf. On second and six, it’s Bell’s turn for a carry, but gets just two yards with a bit of space behind wide receiver Miles Boykin’s pulling block, though rookie Spencer Anderson (left guard alignment) whiffed and ended up on the ground. Third and four now, and Morgan completes the quick swing to Bell, but just one yard and well short of the sticks. Punt.
With ten seconds left in the third quarter, Bell got the carry but stopped behind the line for a loss of one, with center Ryan McCollum getting beat and allowing the tackle.
The drive continued to begin the fourth quarter, and an unfortunate exchange issue between McCollum and Morgan, initially called a turnover, but Morgan was able to recover upon review. The turnover was meant to be though, with Morgan throwing an interception, a poor decision intended for Williams the following play.
The offense returned at 13:29, and the first down quick pass is incomplete for wide receiver Hakeem Butler, who was open but discouragingly can’t make the catch off his hands. On second and 10, Bell got the carry, but goes for no gain with Gentry and Williams pushed back. Third and ten now, and Morgan’s pass is batted by the blitzing linebacker who came free. Three and out, no yards gained.
Returning with 10:20 on the clock, and Hagans gets the carry for five yards with good collective blocks overall. On second and five, Morgan completes the quick out for six yards to Byrd, with a bit of YAC to move the chains. This first down was back to Hagans on the ground, a one-yard gain limited by Williams losing his block, along with McCollum and Anderson. On second and nine, Morgan steps up prepared to run, but with eyes downfield finds Butler for the 17-yard completion. Another first down, and wide receiver Jordan Byrd gets the jet sweep, but it’s blown up by former Steelers Ulysees Gilbert III who came unblocked for a loss of four.
On second and 14, Bell rushed for two yards, doing well to slip a tackle on Anderson’s man (who beat him). Third and 14 now, and Broderick Jones is beat on his pass set, and despite holding his man, allows the sack fumble that goes for a loss of 21, but able to recover the ball, ouch. Easy decision to punt on fourth and 33. Definitely feels like preseason with these fourth and a miles from reserves.
1:51 left in the game with a ten-point lead, the first down run goes to Hagans for a churning two yards. On second and eight, Morgan and Bell tangle feet, tripping up the latter and touched down for a loss of three, timeout Tampa Bay. Third and 11 now, and Pittsburgh runs a screen to Hagans, who waits for a block from McCollum who had fell down, dances around, and the play goes for just one yard. Punt.
After a late special teams turnover, Morgan was able to kneel to seal the Steelers overall encouraging ten-point victory.
The highest PFF grade on defense was safety Trenton Thompson (90.1), the only player to eclipse 90 and higher than I expected, who had an interception that was a great play, but also had some weaker ones including tackling angles for example. Just two players in the 80 range: rookie edge rusher Nick Herbig (89.8), a fantastic debut where he was in the backfield often against the run and pass, and 1.5 sacks. Cornerback Duke Dawson was the other (83.8), showing good coverage, unfortunately injured late in the game denying a touchdown.
Linebacker Kwon Alexander is a player I thought would be graded higher (55.6), making several plays and likely dinged for a very questionable penalty on a hit. PFF graded a whopping ten players below 50, with the lowest four being safety Jalen Elliott (32.9), defensive lineman Manny Jones (32.7), linebacker Cole Holcomb (29), and safety Tanner Muse (26.7). Holcomb was the most surprising in my opinion, while not spectacular thought he deserved a better grade.
The Steelers defense came on first, allowing a four-yard run with newly acquired linebacker Elandon Roberts and edge rusher Malik Golden getting a good push off the line and combining for the tackle. On second and six, it’s a four-yard run once again, with Golden showing up early with a second straight tackle. Third and two now, and third straight run here with a great stop for only one yard by new Steelers linebacker Kwon Alexander, great job filling the run gap. The Bucs decided to go for it, but rookie offensive lineman Cody Mauch (who I was excited to see) is hit with a false start penalty. Steelers defense holds to a short and encouraging three and out drive against the run, and the Bucs punt.
At 7:33 and a seven-point lead, the defense returned to a screen pass from starting quarterback Baker Mayfield, with cornerback Luq Barcoo darting into the backfield but ducks his head and misses the tackle for loss, then safety Kenny Robinson tackling the gain of three. On second and seven, the receiver goes to the ground for the seven yard catch where cornerback James Pierre touched him down. First down, and Tampa Bay was thankfully hit with an illegal formation here negating a big run, with defensive lineman Armon Watts ending up on the ground.
Now first and 15, and Alexander gets great penetration to tackle the run for a loss of one, encouraging start for him. On second and 16, run for eight yards with new linebacker Cole Holcomb double teamed initially and nice job to stay clean and chase for the tackle. Third and eight now, and another penalty on the Bucs, this one a holding forced by defensive lineman Isaiah Loudermilk. Third and 18 now, it’s a pass short slant over the middle, and great reaction from slot cornerback Chandon Sullivan to make the stop well short. Another great defensive stand.
At 1:51, the Bucs o-line won the trenches, particularly washing out defensive tackle Montravius Adams on a double team, freeing the run for eight yards where Loudermilk shed and made the tackle. On second and two, Alexander makes his presence known once again, reading and darting to the late swing pass well to get into the backfield for a loss of two, but a very questionable unnecessary roughness penalty on the big hit.
That unfortunately set up a fresh set of downs, a six-yard run that was blocked well again, including Holcomb on the ground, with edge rusher David Perales and defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal combine for the tackle. On second and four, incomplete pass and declined illegal formation penalty on the Bucs. Third and four now, short pass for a gain of five for the conversion, with Pierre a tick late to react but makes the tackle.
The drive continued to start the second quarter on first down, a three-yard run where rookie defensive tackle Keeanu Benton won and got into the backfield, but missed the angle on the back, with Leal working his man to the ball for the tackle. On second and seven, Barcoo gets caught on play-action, allowing the crossing receiver to roam free for the catch and gain of ten yards, where Pierre on the tackle.
Now in the red zone on first down, the running back swing pass goes for four yards, with Pierre pushing him out of bounds. On second and six, the running back runs into his own blocker for no gain, with Holcomb and cornerback Duke Dawson combining for the tackle. Third and six now, and the pass to the end zone is caught by rookie Trey Palmer, with Pierre in good coverage but a better pass just over his outstretched hand, touchdown. All tied up 7-7.
The defense returned quickly with 12:11 on the clock, still tied up. On first down another Buccaneer penalty, an offensive pass interference drawn by Barcoo. First and 20 now, the run is dropped behind the line on a nice penetration and tackle from Benton, along with Loudermilk. On second and 21, Mayfield completes an explosive 20-yard pass to an open man, between Holcomb and safety Miles Killebrew’s zone coverage, then tackled just short of the sticks by Kenny Robinson.
Third and one now, and the run is stuffed thanks to good penetration from Benton, Alexander coming free off the edge, and solid overall run fills, with the combined tackle from Leal and Kenny Robinson. Tampa Bay goes for it again, and great push in the run game from Pittsburgh, noting Benton, Leal, Perales, and Loudermilk, with the latter dropping it behind the line for a loss of three. Nice job firming up in short yardage to end the drive.
With 8:13 in the second quarter, the defense returned to a run, tackled behind the line by Elijah Riley for a loss of one, nice backside pursuit from the nickel corner spot that Pittsburgh is looking to fill. On second and 11, quarterback Kyle Trask has time and finds an open man deep over the middle for an explosive catch, an explosive gain of 23 in front of Pierre, who makes the tackle.
The following first down was a jet run where Perales got in the backfield despite a double team, but couldn’t get off the block, then was tackled by linebacker Mark Robinson, with great pursuit to the sideline on the gain of two. On second and eight a big Tampa Bay run is negated by an offensive holding, drawn by Mark Robinson. Second and 16, it’s an off-target screen pass, with the receiver going down for the catch, and edge rusher Toby Ndukwe touched him down for a loss of three. Third and 19 now, and the deep pass is read well and intercepted by recently signed safety Trenton Thompson!
1:52 left in the first half, and the defense comes out strong again, this one a sack from linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski for a loss of five, impressively pancaking the running backs block attempt, and providing a great splash play to see at the position. On second and 15, the quick out goes for nine yards, pushed out of bounds by Pierre. Third and six now, and the pass is incomplete, another nice three and out for the Steelers defense.
At 12:31 in the third quarter with the lead now 20-7, Benton limited the first down run to just one yard with a nice win on a swim, awesome debut for the rookie. On second and nine, the pass is incomplete, but Sullivan is hit with a defensive holding penalty, allowing a fresh set of downs. Next was a two-yard run, with rookie edge rusher Nick Herbig winning inside, along with a nice rip from Leal to combine for the tackle. On second and eight, Trask is sacked for a loss of six, on another nice win inside from Herbig, joining forces with Leal once again for two great plays. Third and 14 now, the pass is complete for nine yards, with Pierre making the tackle. Great hold again by the defense.
Returning with 8:28 in the third quarter and a 20-point lead now, and Mauch is hit with another penalty, a holding drawn by defensive lineman Manny Jones. On first and 20, the pass is incomplete, with Watts coming in clean for the quarterback hit. Second and 20, and a receiver gets open for big yards against zone coverage, but is penalized on an offensive facemask on Pierre. Still a first down after the penalty, and nice run tackle for a loss of three from penetration by Benton and Watts, who combined for the TFL.
On second and 13 Pittsburgh blitzes, an unfortunate 23-yard explosive play on a short catch here due to Thompson’s angle/slipping, with a combined tackle from Kenny Robinson and Pierre. The next first down pass incomplete, off the receivers hands on the drop. On second and 10, it’s a run for four off the edge, where cornerback Madre Harper came down on the tackle. Third and six now, and a loss of six via Herbig’s second sack of the game on another win inside, awesome to see in an NFL stadium, and provides another stand for Pittsburgh.
2:10 left in the third quarter, and mostly end of the roster players in. The first down pass is complete for a 17-yard gain where safety Jalen Elliott reacted well coming down for the quick tackle. The following first down was a handoff, with defensive lineman Jonathan Marshall got good penetration, bouncing it outside, and Pierre tackling the four-yard gain. On second and six, the quarterback rolls out and decides to keep it himself towards the sideline, and edge rusher Quincy Roche gets credit for the sack, pushing him out of bounds for no gain.
Third and six now, and the pass deep over the middle is incomplete, with nice coverage from Kwiatkoski, but is dinged on the play and would not return. Another short drive stand by the defense.
The defense returned at 14:45 in the fourth quarter on a short field, defending a two-yard run on first down, with Jones getting in the backfield but not off the block, and the tackle made by cornerback Duke Dawson, coming on the blitz from the slot. On second and eight in the red zone, the short pass is complete for a gain of six, with a popping hit from Mark Robinson along with Elliott combining for the tackle. Third and two now, and the run that initially appeared to be a touchdown was called back on a Bucs holding penalty, draws by Mark Robinson. Third and seven this time, and the pass is (batted) by defensive lineman Breiden Fehoko. Tampa Bay settles for the field goal, lead cut to 27-10.
With 12:30 on the clock, the Bucs run a wide receiver reverse that unfortunately goes for a 13-yard chunk, with Perales missing a TFL opportunity, Riley missing an angle that allows his to turn the corner, and finally tackled by cornerback Isaiah Dunn. The following first down was a run up the middle for three yards, tackled by Ndukwe and Mark Robinson, with each staying clean and unblocked. On second and seven, the short pass is complete for a gain of three, with Mark Robinson making another consecutive tackle, a solid one in the open field. Third and four now, and the pass is incomplete, with cornerback Madre Harper reacting well I good coverage on the would be first down.
Bucs go for it, and the fourth and four pass is incomplete, with Harper and Elliott converging for the hit on the receiver, who’s unable to reel it in. Another great job closing drives for the defense.
Returning with 5:41 in the game, the short pass is complete, with a poor angle from Harper, and the ten-yard gain is tackled by Mark Robinson. The following first down incomplete, an inaccurate one to the wide-open running back. On second and ten, It’s a false start on the Bucs. Second and 15 now, the pass is complete for eight yards along the sideline, with Riley making the tackle. Third and seven, and unfortunate completion over the middle for an explosive 20-yard gain, with safety Tanner Muse allowing the catch, but makes the quick tackle.
The following first down was a scramble for two yards, avoiding Roche deep in the backfield and finally ran outby cornerback Chris Wilcox. On second and eight, the run is stifled by Mark Robinson for just one yard on an uprooting tackle. Third and seven now, and the short pass is complete, and unfortunate huge YAC allowed, with Elliott beat in coverage for an explosive 22-yard gain and conversion, then Harper and Wilcox on the combined tackle.
The following first down was another short pass, over the middle and gaining 12 yards before Harper could make the tackle. Another first down here, throwing it away with Ndukwe coming free with edge pressure. On second and ten, Muse is hit with a roughing the passer penalty. First and goal now, and penalties come in bunches for Pittsburgh, this one on defensive lineman James Nyamwaya for offsides, along with a declined 12 men on the field.
First and goal from the four-yard line, and the pass is to the end zone, and good job by Dawson to push the receiver out of bounds, but lands awkwardly and leaves injured. Here’s to hoping he’s okay. On second and goal, the pass is caught by rookie tight end Payne Durham at the front of the end zone, with Elliott in coverage. Score settles at 27-17, in an overall encouraging performance.
Charts will come later when the sample size grows, with many players currently with the same snaps and grades, causing a messy visual. The table at the end of the article will have snap counts.
The highest graded special teamers according to PFF were Perales (86.3), Rodney Williams (84.4) with a forced fumble, and safety Tanner Muse (80.8) with a solo and assisted tackle. Four players landed in the bottom three: Ndukwe (47.1), Sullivan (45.1) with a missed tackle, White (31.1), and Harper (29.7), the latter two with penalties.
B.T. Potter’s opening kickoff goes for a touchback. At 7:39 in the first quarter, Potter kicks off to the four-yard line, and it’s returned to the 23, with Chapelle Russell making the tackle. At 3:37, two Steelers penalties ensued on punt return, White on a declined block in the back, and the excepted one was on Harper for holding. At 2:02, Braden Mann punts it 51 yards, with a friendly bounce and downed by Barcoo at the 41-yard line.
At 8:18 in the second quarter, Potter kicks it off to the three-yard line, returned to the 25 where Muse and Sullivan combined for the tackle. With two minutes left in the first half, Mann punts 44 yards to the 24-yard line, tackled immediately by Riley, great play. With two seconds left before halftime, Potter was positioned with a 30-yard field goal, making it and increasing Pittsburgh’s lead to 17-7 at halftime.
Tampa Bay kicked off to start the second half, Byrd running up to field it at the ten, and returns it 14 yards to the 24-yard line. Potter just squeezed his 43-yard field goal attempt inside the left upright, 20-7 lead now. Potter’s following kickoff was taken out to the 32-yard line where Butler made the tackle. At 2:19, Mann punts 44 yards to the 18-yard line, where it was fair caught forced by Dez Fitzpatrick getting downfield as a gunner. Byrd fielded a punt with 20 seconds left in the quarter at the ten-yard line near the sideline, but dances nowhere to go on the no gain return.
Byrd returned the kickoff from the endzone at 13:35 in the fourth quarter, making it to just the 18-yard line on the return. At 12:40, Mann has a 44-yard punt, bouncing a few extra yards and rolls out of bounds at the 38-yard line. Mann punts with 5:44 left, a 42 yarder to the nine-yard line, downed by Thompson, and the Bucs suffer another holding penalty. At 1:58, Byrd returned the kickoff from the endzone, getting to only the 13-yard line.
With 52 seconds left, Mann punts 49 yards to the 38-yard line, and great job by Williams to force a fumble, along with the recovery by Dez Fitzpatrick, putting an exclamation point on this encouraging victory.
STEELERS VS. BUCCANEERS PRESEASON WEEK 1 TOTAL SNAPS:
Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments.