If you’re expecting to see Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Lamarr Woodley and your other favorite Steelers play this weekend then you’ll be a happy camper. However, with many young players fighting it out for starting positions you’ll also get a nice dose of new faces again too. You’re typical 3rd preseason game is all the set starters for at least the first half and in the past that was pretty easy to figure out. That’s not necessarily the case though this weekend with several positions up for grabs.
If there is an “important” preseason game though for the Steelers, or any NFL team, it’s the 3rd one. They will travel to Buffalo for Saturday’s contest at 7pm and the starters will play all of the first half at least. It’s not uncommon to see them come out and play a series or two in the 2nd half either. Coaches want to see how their team reacts to playing for two quarters, resting at the intermission and then coming back out to play some more. This tells them a lot about the conditioning of their players and their mindset after a full half of football.
If they struggle, are they able to overcome that, adjust to the strategy of the opponent and be successful? Even though the gameplan is hardly revealing much about what they ultimately want to do, you better perform well when your number is called. It’s not as if established veterans normally lose their job if they have a rough night, but you can bet your last dollar they’ll get an earful from Tomlin and their position coaches if things don’t go well.
Even though this game is mostly about the 1st team players, there are several positions not yet settled and young players will get a chance to play with the starters, especially at cornerback, offensive line, and linebacker. It’s unlike most 3rd preseason games for that very reason and I’m definitely interested to see who rotates in and when.
Expect to see some more passing in this game too. The first two games were really all about the run, now it’s time to see how well the passing offense has been coming along. In order to do that Ben Roethlisberger needs protection from his offensive line. With Marcus Gilbert starting at Right Tackle, and Max Starks on the left side you expect and hope that things for Big Ben will be somewhat comfortable. However, Starks just started practicing again last week and how long he plays is unclear yet, but will be likely be measured by how well his surgically repaired ACL holds up to the pounding of a full half of football. Either way I would expect MIke Adams to get some reps with the starters, to see how he’s progressing from his first 2 games until now. There’s been no decision as to who will officially start at LT in week 1 but this game should tell us a lot.
Cornerback is a hotly contested position on the Steelers this offseason. Keenan Lewis, Curtis Brown, and Cortez Allen are all in the running for that left side starting job. The coaches have said nothing officially about who is the front runner but all indications are that Allen has been separating himself from the other two. Lewis has the experience on his side but Allen has been solid each week and had a great camp. It’s a win win for the defense no matter what because the depth will be excellent for this season.
Lamarr Woodely, Lawrence Timmons, and Larry Foote will start at Linebacker but without James Harrison still, 2 linebackers are getting serious playing time this preseason. Chris Carter and Adrian Robinson are both fighting it out but Carter has been starting the last 2 weeks. If Harrison isn’t ready for Denver, the 2nd year man Carter is the odds on favorite at this point to win that job. Still, with Jason Worilds on the PUP and not leaving anytime soon as far as anyone knows, Robinson has a shot at a roster spot and a good one at that.
According to Steelers.com, Isaac Redman says he’s had no setbacks this week in practice and that his injured hip feels good. He’s hoping to get significant reps in on Saturday and it looks like he will start, but how much he plays will depend on if he has any setbacks, especially when he starts taking some big hits. Jonathan Dwyer is the he team’s only healthy running back with any experience and they cannot afford to lose him. Both Dwyer and Redman will get in some good work on Saturday, lets just hope both come out in good shape.
Chris Rainey and Baron Batch will continue to get a lot of work on Saturday too. The two young speedsters can use all the reps they can get and each needs to impress the coaches if they want a final coveted roster spot. Even with the veterans getting the start, there are situations that dictate a 3rd down type back and these two guys fit that role. Rashard Mendenhall may be off the PUP but he’s not going to play in the preseason and there’s no timetable officially for him to get back on the field yet.
David Gilreath had a great game last week against the Colts and many feel he’s the only real candidate who’s shown enough to warrant being that 4th or 5th receiver (assuming Mike Wallace shows up and plays on opening day). Scottie Montgomery, Steelers Receiver Coach, will want to see if Gilreath can put together another good game based on what is likely to be limited reps for him. Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, and Jerricho Cotchery will be the starters and get the bulk of the snaps in the first half but I expect to see Gilreath out there as well at times with the 1st team.
Drew Butler has done all of the punting in training camp and preseason while Jeremy Kapinos continues to recover from back surgery. Butler hasn’t exactly lit up the stat sheet though. How much confidence the coaches have in him is anybody’s guess but they must see something since they haven’t brought in anyone else yet.
Jerrod Johnson likely won’t play at all because Roethlisberger will play most of the game and then Charlie Batch and/or Byron Leftwich will be in for the remainder of the 2nd half.
With Stevenson Sylvester out with his MCL injury, free agent Brandon Johnson and rookie Sean Spence will see the bulk of the action after the starters leave. Each is fighting it out with Sylvester for the two backup inside linebacker positions behind Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote. This is a pretty tight race but if there is a lock right now it’s probably Johnson based on his experience and good training camp.
Alameda Ta’amu has had his share of struggles in his first NFL training camp and in preseason but he’s got so much size and strength that if given the time to develop he can be someone they can look to in the future. Steve McLendon will be the starter this year but Ta’amu will be called upon at some point regardless of when Casey Hampton is back to full strength. Having said that, keeping 3 NT’s isn’t always in the books so if the rookie wants to make this roster, these next 2 games are huge. He’ll need to demonstrate that he can hold his blocks first and foremost, something he’s struggled with at times in preseason and throughout camp.
No matter who you watch, it’s going to be a good game to see how the starters do with so much playing time and how the backups do with the little time they will get.