There's no sugarcoating it: Pittsburgh's performance against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1 of the 2023 season was deplorable. Despite Mike Tomlin playing his starters more than most teams during the preseason, the Steelers came out flat and laid an egg against a formidable opponent in the season opener.
By the end of the game, there were very few positive noteworthy performances. Obviously, T.J. Watt's 3-sack game was one of them, but the team -- as a whole -- was abysmal in their first regular-season contest of the year. However, one rookie rose to the occasion: defensive lineman, Keeanu Benton.
When I rewatched the Steelers vs. 49ers game on the all-22 film, it was very easy to see the flashes with Benton. Despite turning just 22 years old before the season and in his first-ever NFL game, Benton was disruptive as a pass-rusher and got some quick pressure on the quarterback.
Though Benton's performance wasn't easy to spot at the time with so many struggling players around him, Pro Football Focus certainly took notice of his impressive game. According to PFF, Benton was the second-highest-graded rookie in the entire NFL in Week 1 -- trailing only the talented Jalen Carter (who many considered as the most overall talented player in the draft).
Benton graded out higher than notable first-round rookies like Texans EDGE Will Anderson, Titans OT Peter Skoronski, and Lions RB Jahmyr Gibbs -- each with strong performances in their own right during their rookie debuts.
Benton needs to be a staple for Steelers with Heyward out
With Cameron Heyward sidelined for up to eight weeks with a groin tear that requires surgery to repair, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be relying on Keeanu Benton heavily to help fill the void. While the team may list him as a nose tackle, he truly is a versatile interior defender who has the ability to slide up and down the defensive line.
Benton can use his stout frame and lower body to help anchor against the run, use his long arms and technique to stack and shed blocks, and use his quick feet and bend to get quick pressure on the quarterback from the interior.
In addition to a very promising opening performance, Benton is coming off a strong summer and turned heads with his performances in the preseason. Sadly, with Heyward injured, he will no longer be a young player who has the luxury of being eased into action. Instead, the Steelers will throw Benton head-first into the action and it will be a trial by fire for the 2023 second-round pick.
From what we have seen, fans should be optimistic that Keeanu Benton is up to the challenge. It's going to take a group effort by the defensive line to get the job done without Heyward around for possibly half the season, but the Pittsburgh Steelers will be relying heavily on Benton moving forward.