Several Pittsburgh Steelers will be fighting for jobs tonight as the Steelers open their 2013 preseason against the New York Giants at Heinz Field.
Staying healthy matters more than winning in preseason games. The Steelers coaches will focus less on the scoreboard and more on individual performances as they try to sort out who belongs on this team.
Being wrapped up in the emotion of winning and losing might make it hard for the casual fan to evaluate players during games that count.
During preseason games, you can learn to watch with a more analytical eye. Here are six Steelers worth keeping an eye on tonight. Their uniform numbers in parentheses.
Mike Adams, LT (76): An injury to Ben Roethlisberger in the preseason would pretty much end the Steelers’ season before it begins. Although Marcus Gilbert was anointed the starting left tackle in the spring, the Steelers have moved Adams there in training camp and put Gilbert at right tackle. Like the rest of the starters, Adams probably will play just a series or two. As Roethlisberger’s blind side protector, he’ll be largely responsible for making sure Roethlisberger finishes his short work day in one piece. Adams struggled in pass protection last season but has apparently made strides in that area. It will be interesting to see if he really has improved.
Le’Veon Bell, RB (26): A lot is riding on the shoulders of the 6’1”, 244-pound Bell. The Steelers drafted Bell in the second round to rescue a running game that was 26th in the NFL in 2012. Like the “Beavis and Butt-head” episode in which the boys had to sit together in the same seat to handle a spot at the poker table, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman barely reached 1,000 yards combined last season, and Rashard Mendenhall’s enigmatic career in Pittsburgh came to an inglorious end. Bell has performed well in training camp and is expected to play with the starters tonight. Since he is a rookie who needs to prove himself, he’ll likely stay out there after most of the starters have sat down. The sooner he breaks off a couple of decent gains and holds off a blitzing linebacker, the sooner he can put on a baseball cap and avoid risking injury.
David Paulson, TE (81): Will the Heinz Field faithful still chant “Heeeeeaaaath!!!” when Paulson catches a pass? That happened at least once last season even though Paulson caught just seven passes as a rookie. It doesn’t look like Steelers fans will be cheering for the real Heath Miller in the season opener Sept. 8 at Heinz Field. Miller remains on the physically unable to perform list after tearing multiple ligaments in his knee last December. Steelers fans won’t be chanting “Spaaaaaeeeeeth!” anytime soon, either. The Steelers drafted Spaeth in 2007 then let him go to Chicago in 2011. They brought the tight end back this year in case Miller wasn’t ready to go, but now he’s out eight to 10 weeks with a foot injury, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The next man up is Paulson, who has improved as both a receiver and a blocker in camp according to Steel City Insider. He’ll need to start showing tonight that he can be the go-to tight end until Miller returns.
Steve McLendon, NT (90): McLendon is the heir to Casey Hampton, the boulder in the middle of the Steelers’ defense since 2001. Hampton’s ability to clog up the middle and occupy blockers freed up linebackers and defensive backs to make plays. For all the hand-wringing surrounding James Harrison’s departure, Hampton’s absence might be felt even more. That’s where McLendon comes in. McLendon might get noticed a little more than Hampton with his ability to get into the backfield. But the Steelers were a top-five defense in nine of Hampton’s 12 seasons because of his grunt work that largely went unnoticed. McLendon will need to do the same things.
Chris Carter, OLB (54) and Stevenson Sylvester, ILB (55): Carter and Sylvester are mentioned together because they’re next to each other on the Steelers’ numerical roster and they have a lot in common. Both have alliterative first and last names. Both are fifth-round draft picks. Both are linebackers. And both need to start showing something. Sylvester is entering his fourth season. While he has had an impact on special teams, he hasn’t done much from scrimmage. During the 2013 NFL draft, Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler said that this is a make-or-break season for Sylvester, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Carter has played in 16 games in two seasons. He’s made 11 tackles and broke up one pass. He has yet to sack a quarterback. He’ll have to compete with promising undrafted pass rushers Adrian Robinson and Alan Baxter to keep his job. With so much to prove, Carter and Sylvester should see plenty of action tonight.