PITTSBURGH — Mike Williams spent two hours hauling in strike after strike from Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel during practice on Thursday when the wide receiver decided it was time for a proclamation.
“I told EJ, to be honest my exact words were ‘This is the best I’ve ever seen,’” Williams said. “I don’t think he threw an incomplete pass.”
That’s stretching it a bit — a handful of passes hit the turf during a joint workout with the Pittsburgh Steelers — but for a second-year starter still learning on the job, playing well against one of the NFL’s better defenses is a start.
“We do not want to consider this like, ‘Oh man this was a great day,’” Manuel said. “This needs to be a consistent thing. It needs to be like that every day.”
Particularly on game days.
And while Manuel and the rest of the Bills were encouraged by the way they hung with the Steelers, it matters little if they can’t translate that into success when they face off in the preseason game at Heinz Field for Saturday night.
“I thought we did a pretty good job throwing the ball last time we played in a game,” Manuel said. “So we want to continue to carry that over. Not sure how much I will play, but the reps that we are in, we want to make sure we look good.”
So do the Steelers (0-1). While it’s just the preseason, Pittsburgh is searching for something to build on. The Steelers haven’t won an exhibition game in nearly two years, going 0-4 last August in what turned out to be a precursor for a miserable 2-6 start when the games started to count.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has praised his young group for a promising two-plus weeks at Saint Vincent College, where he believes the good days outnumbered the bad by a large margin.
“For me the biggest thing is mistakes have gotten cut down, whether it’s rookie mistakes, veteran mistakes, myself,” Roethlisberger said. “Less mistakes usually means you are understanding things, you are in the book, you are studying, which leads to better production.”
He should get an extended look at what he’s working with Saturday night after leading the first string to a field goal in one series of action in last week’s opening loss to the New York Giants. Running backs Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount will “their share” of carries according to coach Mike Tomlin.
“We have a great deal of confidence in both guys,” Tomlin said. “Both guys are going to be central reasons why we’re successful. That’s the plan and I think they’re open to that.”
Pittsburgh is also optimistic it will get a chance to see rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier on the field for the first time in a game. The first round pick sat out the Giants’ game with a right knee issue that Tomlin called a “boo boo,” but looked just as quick as advertised after returning to full practice on Thursday.
Whoever is on the field with the defensive starters will try to take a step forward after a so-so performance against New York when the first string allowed Giants running back Rashad Jennings to rip off a 73-yard touchdown run up the middle.
Defensive lineman Cam Heyward took most of the blame for being out of position, but he’s hardly the only one culpable after the other 10 guys failed to get more than an outstretched hand on Jennings.
“I like how physical we are,” safety Mike Mitchell said. “There’s definitely some things we have to improve upon. As every other team in the NFL does right now. No one’s a finished product. We’re still growing and developing every single day.”