What does the preseason mean in the NFL? For any team, the preseason is a time to evaluate depth players and see where young players have grown since their last year with the group. It simulates live special teams periods, which can not be done in practice. For some coaches, it is used as a tune-up for the starters, like the Steelers, and for others, it strictly is for those younger guys. Regardless, evaluating preseason football is hard.
The Steelers had the perfect preseason for their starters. Pittsburgh ended the preseason undefeated and a perfect five for five on drives by the offense for touchdowns. Meanwhile, the first-team defense did not allow a touchdown the entirety of the preseason once their personnel all played. So, naturally, the hype goes through the roof for the Steelers. Pundits across the NFL world seem to believe the team has a lot of good football in their future and they can be contenders in the AFC North. Kyle Brandt of Good Morning Football is buying what the Steelers are selling in the preseason.
“Last year was going to be the year that Mike Tomlin was (going) to have a losing season,” Brandt said. “It was over. This is the year, T.J. Watt’s hurt, their record is terrible. They just get to .500. They had a winning season, they were 9-8 with ridiculous circumstances. Trust me, put the Steelers in the playoffs this year, it’s going to be really scary.”
The betting market does not buy the hype. Pittsburgh opened with their season over/under at 8.5 wins, and it stands the same today. The Steelers played the Buccaneers and Falcons backups but torched the Bills starters. How does someone evaluate that, and what can you learn from it?
The answer is that the preseason is not sticky in any way. Over history, some preseason quarterback performances do prove real. On the other hand, you have flashes in the pan like Sam Darnold’s 2021, where he posted a passer rating of 116 in an impressive showing for the Panthers. The play of Pickett and the Steelers aside, none of the stats prove anything, even Pickett’s sterling perfect passer rating.
Young quarterbacks, though, need to show a level of progression. The Steelers and Pickett are an interesting case. I don’t know that Pittsburgh is suddenly an AFC North contender. There was already an easy case to be made there right off their additions on paper. As for Pickett, he does not magically become some elite quarterback. But the biggest thing the Steelers learned about themselves is two-fold.
One, this team is deep enough to be a playoff team. Pittsburgh flashed their depth off across the preseason, but there is a level of depth to this team that most playoff teams do have. The Steelers are deep in the trenches on both sides, which could not be said about the team in recent memory. Preseasons matter to evaluate those depth and ancillary needs. Pittsburgh has maybe two of those right now in backup center and cornerback. Outside of that, the team has stable veterans, ascending young talent, and the star power at the top to back up the depth.
The second thing is confidence about this team led by their quarterback. Pickett’s on-field play might translate into the regular season, but it is 15 throws. One thing that will translate, no matter what, is the team’s confidence. This football team believes they will win the AFC North and be contenders, and it all starts with the two forefront leaders of the team, Mike Tomlin and Kenny Pickett. Most teams will say they can compete, but not all mean it. This Steelers team has serious moxie and confidence that can carry them a long way.
This is all to say I would not buy a ton of stock into preseason on-field performances. Sometimes, these things translate, and other times, they flop in your face. With all of the mismatched groupings, it happens. But intangible confidence is something that will carry over. The air in the Steelers locker room has a renewed confidence behind a quarterback who thinks his team is primed for a leap. If you learned anything from this preseason, it is that the team believes they are ready to make a playoff run. If you buy into the confidence, maybe you should too.