Preseason 2023 NFL Week 3: Biggest Takeaways from Thursday's Games
Two approaches to the NFL preseason exist. Either a coaching staff wants to get its starting units on the field and take advantage of an opportunity to gain valuable reps, or the games are viewed as extraneous exhibitions where top performers don't need to play and risk a potential injury.
As the third and final week of the 2023 preseason began, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts wanted to see what their starters could do. On the other hand, the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles didn't field their starting units.
Evaluations of both rosters is difficult based on those decisions. But the Steelers and Colts should be excited, particularly with how their offenses performed. Kenny Pickett's preseason ends with nearly flawless play throughout the three games. Anthony Richardson is dynamic behind center, even though he's still a work-in-progress.
The Falcons and Eagles entered their respective competitions chock full of individuals trying to make rosters.
As Tuesday's roster cuts looms, the following storylines emerged as the biggest takeaways from Thursday's action.
Steelers Offense in Regular-Season Form With Kenny Pickett Leading the Way
The Pittsburgh Steelers found perfection this preseason. Their offense took the field on five different occasions through three games and scored touchdowns on every single time.
During Thursday's meeting with the Atlanta Falcons, Pittsburgh's first-team offense pieced together an eight-play, 92-yard touchdown drive followed by a three-play, 29-yard scoring series courtesy of a short field.
Early returns signal a big jump for quarterback Kenny Pickett in his second season.
Last year's first-round draft pick completed 13-of-15 passes for 199 yards and a pair of touchdown tosses. More importantly, his command and growing familiarity with all of the weapons found within the Steelers offense creates excitement for a group often viewed as the fourth-best in the AFC North.
"[Pickett] needs to be what we need him to be," head coach Mike Tomlin told reporters at the start of training camp. "I know that he's preparing with that mindset, and I like his approach and his demeanor in that regard, but I think whether you're talking about guys like quarterbacks or guys like me as a head coach, we need to be what our team needs us to be."
The coach's comments are important, because they establish a baseline. In a division that also features Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson, the Steelers can't look at Pickett as the difference-maker. Instead, his execution of the scheme is what will determine how successful Pittsburgh can be.
Pickett is now the maestro, with George Pickens and Diontae Johnson providing dynamic targets. Veteran Allen Robinson II and the speedy Calvin Austin III are also in the mix. Running back Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren are an excellent one-two punch. Pittsburgh's tight ends are massive. Finally, the organization emphasized improvements along the offensive line, and the front five is playing exceptionally well heading into the regular season.
It's preseason. All excitement must be tempered. But the Steelers wanted a more explosive offense this year and they're going to have one.
Falcons Rookie S DeMarcco Hellams Continues to Show Why He Should Be In Lineup
Atlanta Falcons rookie DeMarcco Hellams is used to playing in a crowded defensive backfield.
As a member of the Alabama Crimson Tide, Hellams was technically the third safety behind Brian Branch and Jordan Battle. Hellams, who played regularly in the SEC as part of big nickel packages, didn't hear his name called until the seventh round.
Yet this year's 227th overall pick continued to show he's ready to play at the professional level by making eight tackles Thursday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Six days earlier, Hellams defended a pair of passes and nabbed an interception against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Falcons chose not to play their starters throughout the majority of preseason. Hellams took advantage. He showed up and out. His coaches noticed.
"He shows up when the lights are on, just like he did at Alabama," head coach Arthur Smith told reporters after Friday's meeting with the Bengals. "He continues to find the football. He's a good football player, and we're going to continue to work on some other things, but it's a good pattern to have two weeks in a row (where he's) going and getting the ball."
Richie Grant and Jessie Bates III are set as the Falcons' starting safeties. Hellams provides versatility with ball skills to get him on the field and be creative schematically.
Anthony Richardson Shows Why Colts Should be Thrilled With QB's Potential
After not playing during the previous preseason against the Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson played the entire first half against the Philadelphia Eagles, albeit their second-team defense.
A quick glance at Thursday's Richardson's stat-line will likely invoke the Steve Carell disgusted GIF. After all, the first-year signal-caller completed six-of-17 passes for 78 yards. Box-score scouting doesn't tell the whole story, though.
Richardson provided exactly what most should expect at this point.
His athleticism creates opportunities. Running lanes widened. The quarterback made plays with his feet. His pocket presence was exceptional. He got the Colts out of bad situations on multiple occasions.
At the same time, refinement as a passer remains an ongoing process. Sure, Richardson ripped a couple nice passes that show his full potential. At the same time, his overall ball placement proved to be erratic.
Richardson's natural ability makes everything look easy. During Amazon's Thursday Night Football telecast, veteran teammate DeForest Buckner mentioned the quarterback's growing confidence since the start of training camp and how his mobility makes everything difficult on opposing defenses.
Of note, starting center Ryan Kelly and right guard Will Fries didn't play because of injuries. Tight ends Jelani Woods and Mo Alie-Cox weren't in the lineup, either. Plus the Jonathan Taylor situation has yet to be settled. Richardson continues to flash despite an imperfect setup.
The highs this season will make Richardson's play appointment viewing. The lows will look awful. What's most important is that this year's fourth overall draft pick continues to get reps and gain experience. The things he does now should make him a better quarterback later.
Philadelphia Eagles' Backfield Lineup Clarifies With Trey Sermon's Showcase
Who needs a running back? Ironically, the Philadelphia Eagles' opponent Thursday, the Indianapolis Colts, may be in need of added backfield depth.
The Eagles feature arguably the league's best running back rotation. Five different ball-carriers can make an argument to be on the opening-weekend roster. However, the Eagles likely won't keep five and how they proceeded Thursday indicates how their roster will take shape for Week 1.
"You're just looking for different things that they can do," head coach Nick Sirianni told reporters Tuesday when asked how the running back rotation will look. "You always adapt to what your players do well, but also, there are some things that you want to be able to run. You want to be like, 'All right, who can do this job well and who can do this job well and who can do this job well?' Sometimes it's the same person throughout, and sometimes it's by committee.
Trey Sermon served as the Eagles' workhorse during their final preseason contest, with 20 touches against the Colts. Meanwhile, the quartet of D'Andre Swift, Rashaad Penny, Kenneth Gainwell and Boston Scott didn't play.
Logically, Sermon won't make the Eagles roster.
Granted, Sermon didn't exactly impress by averaging 1.9 yards per carry. However, he faced Indianapolis' starters while playing behind the Eagles' backup offensive line. Furthermore, he still found a way to score a touchdown for the second straight week and caught four passes out of the backfield.
Sermon is only 24 years old and a recent third-round draft pick. If the Eagles can flip him for a late-round draft pick, he'll almost certainly find himself on another roster.