The Steelers came out with a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And with that, they have an entirely new set of tape to go over in significant fashion from the preseason games. But who ended up looking like a winner and who fell flat in the first game for the team in 2023? Here are a few winners and losers.
Winner: Diontae Johnson and George Pickens
The two starting wide receivers for the team deserve to be on the winners’ list tonight. Pickens for the obvious, highlight-reel touchdown. That is the type of stuff that he simply did not do a lot of last year. There was more shake in that route and his YAC on that play is what really brought it all together. That is how explosive plays are created by the quarterback and receiver.
As for Johnson, his three catches for 32 yards came on a diverse route tree. The first was a hitch route, the second a comeback, and the third an over route. He looked as solid as ever and got open with ease on the first drive. There is little to break down here, but they made the routine look easy and made some spectacular plays splashed in there.
Loser: Cody White
White had a strong training camp up to this point, but tonight was not his night. He created little separation and did not go up and fight hard enough at the catch point on Mitch Trubisky’s interception. Later on, he would drop a ball on a hitch route. There is always a place for White on the practice squad given his special teams ability, but if he wanted to make a push for the 53-man roster, this night could have gone better for him.
Winner: Kenny Pickett
There is not much Pickett did not do on Friday. He answered the questions he had to in his one drive. Pickett led the first team on a 10-play, 83-yard drive for a touchdown. It had basically everything you could have wanted from the team right from the outset. Pickett looked poised and ready to go from a number of standpoints. Pickett’s pocket movement and accuracy were excellent on the drive. It’s an encouraging start.
Loser: Kendrick Green
Green lacked the juice he had coming into this one, not snapping once at fullback but playing fully at backup center. Instead of inspiring confidence, Green made a case that the Steelers should be looking for external options for the backup center position. He was pushed back a number of times, had a blown assignment, and had an errant snap all on top of it. Green was the most obvious loser on the day. It did not go the way he wanted it to go.
Winner: Elijah Riley
It was hard to get too much of a read on the slot cornerback battle, but Elijah Riley stuck out in a good way. The veteran out of the Army made a great backside tackle on an outside zone run off a slot cornerback blitz. But his punt coverage tackle is what is really putting his stock up. it was Riley’s best play of the day and the best special teams play of the day for the team. That puts him on the radar of the team and firmly in a spot to push for the 53-man roster.
Loser: Tanner Morgan
The fourth-string quarterback got his chance, but the Steelers never really gave him enough practice reps to prepare him for this chance. As a result, Morgan looked out of sync and a little doe-eyed at times out there. In his first NFL action, it was not the debut that he wanted in order to show what he has. Morgan may get more opportunities later in the preseason, but the very first showing is not the ideal introduction. He finished the day 5 for 8 for 35 yards with one tough interception to swallow.
Winner: Anthony McFarland
Yet again, McFarland proves that he has everything you need to be the RB3 on the Steelers this season. His touchdown brought many of the flashes in practice to life on the football field. Oftentimes, it can be tough to buy into the training camp hype, but McFarland’s subtle press of the line on his touchdown showed that the game is truly starting to slow down for him at a macro level. In addition, I thought he made some nice blocks in the pass protection part of his game. He keeps stacking good days.
Loser: Backup CBs
This was not the best game for the backup cornerbacks. They were thinner there, so James Pierre played most of the game. He had the most tackles on the team and had some flashes, though he did allow a touchdown when Baker Mayfield floated the ball over his head. Still, he did not instill confidence that the consistency was there. Luq Barcoo has some coverage chops but missed multiple tackles on the day. Meanwhile, Isaiah Dunn and Madre Harper struggled in coverage to maintain leverage. It would not be surprising to see the Steelers go shopping into the free-agent pool.
Winner: Wisconsin Players
Nick Herbig and Keeanu Benton brought everything they were advertised to be and then some to the game on Friday. Herbig came on in the second half and terrorized the Buccaneers’ offensive line. He racked up two sacks and a number of pressures outside of that with two different moves. Herbig has elite burst, so if the bag is as deep as it looks, it is hard to not expect him to get some real playing time this season given what he is showing.
Meanwhile, Benton left the game with an ankle injury, but before that, he looked like the best defensive lineman on the team. Benton’s burst and heavy hands showed up all night. He only finished with three tackles, but he had at least three or four pressures to his name. Benton might be the starting nose tackle. If he plays like he did on Friday, I’m not sure why he would not.