PITTSBURGH — It may only be the preseason, but the Steelers have now strung together three straight victories. Saturday’s victory over the Lions was a boat race that the Steelers made sure was over early on. The starters were impressive, and it was their impact early on in the game that led the Steelers to a dominant shutout in the first half. However, there were still positives and negatives on both sides of the ball. Who were the winners and who were the losers?
Winner: Ben Roethlisberger
This was about as good of an outing as the Steelers could have received from Ben Roethlisberger. There was no question that Roethlisberger had his bst stuff on Saturday evening. First and foremost, his arm seems to be more than fine if there was any speculation on that end. His back shoulder bullet to Pat Freiermuth was plenty of proof for that. Arm strength is far more about velocity than raw distance, and that ball had plenty of sauce behind it.
Perhaps even bigger was Roethlisberger’s impressive mobility displayed. Eric Ebron did end up dropping the football, but it was a bit of vintage Roethlisberger to scamper to avoid multiple defenders and extend that play. His deep ball to Diontae Johnson was underthrown and more of a floater than a dime.
However, that does not take away from a rather masterful performance from Roethlisberger. It was one that not only he was happy with, but that Mike Tomlin was happy and pleased with overall.
“I thought he did a nice job,” Tomlin said. “I thought we got what we wanted to get accomplished, get him familiar with administering the offense in an in stadium-like circumstance. I thought he did a great job in communicating. He made good and fluid decisions and we were able to move the ball.”
Loser: James Pierre
James Pierre has had an excellent training camp, and frankly, two straight standout games to begin his preseason. However, on Saturday, there were clear struggles from the Florida Atlantic product. Working as the team’s de facto third cornerback and coming in during the Steelers’ nickel packages, Pierre certainly had an opportunity. Still, between some sloppy missed tackles and coverage blunders, this may have been Pierre’s weakest showing of any day this summer.
Again, it was not all bad. Pierre made a few nice sticks in the run game and a key pass breakup on top of that. There was a physicality and feistiness that has come to be a signature of his on the football field. Pierre simply needs to take this game as a lump and improve from it. There is more than enough reason to believe Pierre could be something here, but this showing did not continue to instill that confidence.
Winner: Pat Freiermuth
It is hard to pick out a much bigger winner than Freiermuth from this showing. When the quarterback throws out a comparison to a heralded tight end within the organization on the heels of a performance, it was a good night. Saturday night was exactly the type of performance that Freiermuth needed to showcase his full skillset. While Roethlisberger may not want the league to know what a weapon Freiermuth is just yet, two high-pointed, twirling touchdowns in the red zone will put them on high alert. However, Tomlin was not surprised by anything he saw.
“I don’t think he showed us anything different than he’s shown us throughout every component of this process even dating back to minicamp,” Tomlin said. “You know, he made a very similar play in red zone work in minicamp, so I don’t think any of us are surprised by what he was able to do tonight.”
In the blocking game, Freiermuth appears to be getting more and more comfortable within the landscape. Brandon Graham welcomed him to the NFL, but since then, the rookie has rapidly improved on the blocking end of the scale. Freiermuth has set himself up to be the potential week one starter.
Loser: Chukwuma Okorafor
For the most part, the offensive line was either extremely neutral or flat-out solid on Saturday night. Chukwuma Okorafor did not follow along the same line as the rest, however. After a performance that was deceptively decent last Thursday against the Eagles, Okorafor took a step on Saturday. He seemed all out of sync with his hands and feet. There does not seem to be active coordination between his pass sets and strategy all the time as he works. Okorafor has to find some consistency before the regular season, or he could be an active detriment to the unit as a whole.
Winner: Melvin Ingram and Alex Highsmith
Including both of these guys on this list is impossible. Melvin Ingram and Alex Highsmith were the double trouble the Lions simply never figured out. Taylor Decker was out, but rookie Penei Sewell was terrorized by the veteran in Ingram. There were a few impressive sticks by Ingram in the running game. He is living up to the ‘running game bully’ nickname that Tomlin gave him. As a pass rusher, Ingram never registered himself onto the stat sheet, but Sewell had no idea how to handle Ingram’s explosiveness and savvy. Ingram was in the backfield consistently.
As for Highsmith, he is the type of guy that is hard to not watch. It seems every single play Highsmith is somehow in the backfield and causing pressure. He just has such a vast move set with lots of counters for a guy who is only in his second season. Add in some extra explosiveness and more strength than he had in his rookie season and it really looks like that Highsmith could be primed for the second-year jump.
Loser: Run Blocking
One other thing that did encapsulate the entire offensive line was a lack of push up front. There were some obvious plays that were exceptions to this rule, but the vast majority of plays the Steelers offensive line, from top to bottom, displayed on Saturday night were not good. There were free rushers where the offensive missed their assignments. At other times, they could not cut off backside pursuit in space. Then, sometimes it was simply that they were playing too high and got pushed back right at the point of attack. The Steelers were certainly nasty up front tonight, but that type of mentality can only go so far. At some point, there has to be tangible help for the running backs. There was not enough of that on Saturday.
Winner: Running Backs
Speaking of the running backs, the rushing numbers on the day might look mediocre, but that is what they are, mediocre. They are nowhere near the putrid levels that the Steelers rushing attack reached at some points in 2020. That really comes down to how the running backs created for themselves on Saturday. It seemed up and down the depth chart, the running backs were able to make something out of nothing.
Najee Harris needs no introduction. His spectacular 46-yard catch and run was arguably the play of the night. There were other times where the ‘wow’ moments popped for him. Harris consistently creates nothing out of something. He views that as his responsibility, and he always delivers on that promise.
Anthony McFarland Jr. had a similar performance. Once in space, McFarland is a viable attacker with more than enough quick-twitch and agility to force missed tackles. It is that type of dynamic athleticism that allows McFarland to be a guy who is viewed as a dangerous football player. Perhaps more importantly, McFarland’s great cut block at the goal line was the highlight of the night for him. Growth in pass protection will be huge for him.
Meanwhile, Kalen Ballage continues to further his grip onto a roster. Ballage put up a true do-it-all performance in pass protection, the ground game, and even through the air. He has a soft pair of hands, and there is legitimately some explosiveness behind Ballage. His frame is similar to that of Harris, though he lacks the otherworldly lateral agility that Harris has for his size. Still, Ballage was able to force plenty of missed tackles to create something out of nothing.
Loser: Shakur Brown
After Arthur Maulet suffered an ankle injury, Shakur Brown had a big opportunity to throw his hat into the ring for some serious consideration. However, he ended up with two costly penalties, including a holding penalty on a 2nd and 30. That, in particular, was an egregious mistake. It just seemed to snowball fast for Brown. He had a blown coverage on another play. Then came yet another penalty. Brown might have played himself off any roster consideration with this performance. He likely still has a practice squad spot waiting for him, but this is was a bad showing.