The Pittsburgh Steelers defense did not get much of a test in its first preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Friday night.
Of course, most of the Steelers starting defense didn’t even play, with several regulars in the secondary battling injuries and veterans Cam Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Patrick Peterson and T.J. Watt held out.
This time around, head coach Mike Tomlin expects those four to play, along with Damontae Kazee, Keanu Neal and Joey Porter Jr., who are all expected to return from injury.
So the Steelers’ first-team defense will be on the field together as a unit for the first time in 2023, and unlike last week when the already less-than-dynamic Buccaneers held out top receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, they’ll be facing one of the top offenses in the NFL.
Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott said that he intends to play his starts, including quarterback Josh Allen and wide receiver Stefon Diggs about a quarter and a half. While Diggs’ running mate, Gabe Davis and backup running back Damien Harris are both banged up, the Buffalo offense will largely be the same one that took that field the last time these two teams got together.
And if you remember what happened last time, that should make for a solid challenge at Acrisure Stadium.
Last fall, Allen threw for 424 yards and four touchdowns, he and James Cook averaged nearly eight yards per carry, and Buffalo scored 31 points in the first half while waltzing to a 38-3 victory.
Let’s start with Allen, who the Steelers had largely minimized in their first three matchups against him. The big, strong quarterback presents a welcome change for the team’s edge rushers, who haven’t been allowed to hit or even come close to hitting a quarterback the last month at St. Vincent College.
“He’s always a test,” linebacker Alex Highsmith said. “We’ve played him the last three years. I’m looking forward to getting after it. We know it’s going to be a challenge. He’s a versatile guy. He can throw it and he can run it. We’ve got to account for both of them. We’re looking forward to it.”
Then there’s Diggs and company, who lit up the Steelers secondary a year ago. This unit looks different, with Kazee and Neal safety, Porter and Peterson added to the rotation at cornerback and a new host of slot defenders and linebackers underneath.
The Steelers top defenders might only work a series or two, but the will be important once. Last year, a DeMarvin Leal field goal block and a Levi Wallace interception in the end zone were the only things that prevented Buffalo from scoring every time they touched the ball in the first half.
The Steelers completely re-configured the way they intend to defend the pass, both in terms of personnel, which we’ve seen, and likely in scheme, which we largely have not. A solid outing against Buffalo’s best would go a long way to providing some optimism for the new-look version of that unit.