5 Biggest Pittsburgh Steelers Storylines Entering Preseason Week 3
Training camp may be over, but the preparation for the regular season has not stopped since the Pittsburgh Steelers left Saint Vincent College. Practices at their South Side facility may make the team feel more at home, but the Steelers will take to the road for their most important game of the preseason.
The third preseason game is traditionally the closest thing to a regular-season contest, with the starters playing a significant portion of the game. Though Mike Tomlin has not announced how he will use his first unit, most starters figure to play at least a half of football, if not more.
For many players, this will be one of their final opportunities to make the roster, while others will look to build upon strong performances in training camp and the first two preseason games. Besides individual performances, this game will provide the coaching staff the opportunity to evaluate the performances of the first-team offense, defense and special teams.
While there is still time for players to make an impact, many decisions regarding the roster makeup and position battles will be decided based on the team's performance against the Philadelphia Eagles.
With training camp over, the major storylines have shifted from the practice field to the playing field. Here is a look at the five biggest storylines for the Steelers this week.
Brett Keisel Is Back
The talk all offseason was that the Steelers would wait until after training camp to re-sign Brett Keisel. That is exactly what they did as they agreed on a deal on Tuesday.
Though it happened on the same day that Marcus Gilbert signed a new six-year contract, the news that Keisel was returning to Pittsburgh was the talk of the town. As a fan favorite, the return of Da Beard resulted in a lot of excitement as well as a number of questions.
There was an effort to get younger on the defensive side of the football, and bringing back Keisel, who turns 36 in September, does not achieve this. But that does not mean that the Steelers made a bad move bringing back the veteran.
Cameron Heyward is the only defensive end on the roster with significant experience in Dick LeBeau’s defense. Keisel adds a veteran presence to the defense who will be there to help lead the newcomers as as contribute on the field.
Although Keisel is currently listed as the starter at right defensive end on the team's depth chart, that does not mean he will be an every-down player. According to Scott Brown of ESPN.com, Keisel will “likely play in a rotation at left defensive end with [Cam] Thomas and [Stephon] Tuitt, as well as backup Cameron Heyward at right defensive end.”
As much as Keisel will bring to the field as a player and a leader, his presence may also cost a young defensive end a roster spot. Josh Mauro, Nick Williams or Brian Arnfelt must have a strong performance against the Philadelphia Eagles if they want to convince the coaches to keep an extra defensive end, or, else, it will be a battle for a spot on the practice squad.
Progress of Running Game
In the opening week of the preseason, the Steelers’ coaches limited Ben Roethlisberger in the passing game. For the second game, they had him throwing the ball out of the no-huddle offense. As they enter their final dress rehearsal for the regular season, expect a greater balance on the offense.
After two games, we have all seen that the offense can move the ball through the air, but can they move it on the ground? Possibly, but the early results were not encouraging.
Pittsburgh’s running backs have combined for 105 yards on 40 carries with an average of 2.63 yards per carry. Le’Veon Bell carried the ball seven times for 29 yards, and LeGarrette Blount carried it six times for 10 yards. Neither back has had an opportunity to get into a rhythm, so more carries could be in the works for Thursday’s game.
“It is something that we would like to work on and definitely try and emphasize that if we get a chance,” guard David DeCastro told Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I think we are going to try to emphasize it, but football is one of those things that you can't really force.”
The Steelers don’t need to come out and try to run the ball on every play, but rather they need to attempt to achieve a balanced attack against Philadelphia. Doing so will help set the tone for the ground game as they enter the regular season.
Eagles' Offense a New Test
Nothing against the Steelers’ first two opponents, but they have not exactly matched up against an offensive juggernaut during the preseason. That will change when they to Philadelphia to play against the Eagles and Chip Kelly’s high-tempo offense.
Tomlin downplayed the innovation of Kelly’s offense, but he did acknowledge how well the Eagles execute, per Bob Labriola of Steelers.com:
“I think maybe some of the things that (Coach Chip Kelly) does in the manner in which he does it is overblown,” said Tomlin. “There’s a lot of window dressing and so forth pre-snap in terms of the tempo and the location of eligible receivers and things of that nature. But once the ball is snapped they’re a good fundamental outfit.”
With several new pieces still adjusting to Dick LeBeau’s scheme, matching up against an offense as talented as the Eagles will provide a true test. Nick Foles has a strong arm and has proved to be very accurate. Much of the passing game is set up with the run, an area in which the Steelers have struggled.
LeBeau’s defense is at its best when it is running downhill and attacking the offense. This is when it is dictating the tempo of the game and not its opponent. The Eagles' pace can force a defense to back off and play on its heels.
Beyond the Eagles’ scheme, the third preseason game is a dress rehearsal for the regular season. That means we will get a long look at the first-team defense and get a close look at the strengths and weaknesses as the regular season approaches.
Progress of Young Playmakers
Nothing against Stephon Tuitt, but he doesn’t quite fit the same profile as the trio of playmakers the Steelers drafted in the opening four rounds of the draft.
Ryan Shazier, Dri Archer and Martavis Bryant have been three of the most exciting players to watch throughout training camp and the preseason. It is easy to have high hopes for all three, but we have to remember it is only the preseason, and they all have a lot to learn.
That doesn’t mean we can’t be a little bit excited about their potential.
Shazier was arguably the best defensive player on the field against the Bills. He finished the game with 11 tackles—two on special teams—and an interception in tight coverage against the tight end. Beyond a missed tackle when he slipped on the turf, Shazier had a stellar debut.
Everyone already knows about Archer’s speed, and we have seen it on full display already in the preseason. He has four carries for 10 yards and four receptions for 94 yards. It hasn’t taken long to get Archer the ball in space and allow his speed to take over. Beyond his stats from the box score, nothing was more telling than this tidbit from Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders:
Steelers have had 7 receptions of 40+ yards by a RB since 1998. Dri Archer has one in each of his first two preseason games. @EdBouchette— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) August 17, 2014
Archer may not be the traditional running back, but whether he catches the ball out of the backfield or lines up as a receiver, he has already shown the type of big-play ability that it is capable of providing.
Bryant hasn’t matched the production of Archer, but he is very close to breaking out. He was stellar as a deep receiver and red-zone threat in training camp, and now he needs to translate his skills into a game setting. In two games, he has three receptions on eight targets for 37 yards. He also drew three flags and fumbled once.
The talent is in place; he just needs to refine it. His teammates seem to recognize that it is only a matter of time (via Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).
“He’s a little raw right now,” Antonio Brown said. “He has to settle down in games and fine-tune his game and take practice to the game.”
Roethlisberger was hard on Bryant during practices, especially on comeback routes. But he has worked with talented receivers over the years and watches the work Brown puts in practice every day and wants to see the same from Bryant. Roethlisberger said:
He’s got to kind of earn his way onto the first group. That’s just the way it is. We have guys right now who are ahead of him on the depth chart that are playing at a high level. He’s going to have to really bust his butt to earn that spot with the first group. If he can prove that, he earns it and deserves to be there then we’ll give him all the reps he wants.
All three rookies may be at different stages of their development, but all have provided moments of excitement and proved that they can contribute at various degrees as rookies. As they enter the third week of the preseason, it will provide everyone with an opportunity to see if they can play at a high level on a weekly basis and not just in quick bursts.
Now or Never for Bubble Players
For many players, the third preseason game is the last opportunity to make an impression on the coaches. That is particularly true for the players on the roster bubble.
Unfortunately, several of the bubble players won’t be on the field on Thursday, which drastically decreases their odds at making the final roster. Shaquille Richardson, Jordan Zumwalt and Eric Waters are three players whom Tomlin ruled out for the game.
Richardson was the only cornerback drafted by the Steelers this year, and there was hope that he could provide a young player who could eventually develop into a starter. Zumwalt had a chance to be a special teams ace, but he has suffered through a groin injury, while Waters was a popular name with training camp observers as a possible third or fourth tight end.
But they cannot make the team sitting from the sidelines, and Tomlin sent that message this week (via Bob Labriola of Steelers.com):
We’re getting to the meat of this thing a little bit, and if guys are going to make a move it’s kind of now or never. I like that feeling of urgency in the guys as we prepare this week and I think it’s creating a good competitive environment as we get back here in terms of continuing the team building on the South Side.
But there are a few players who will be on the field and competing for roster spots. Josh Mauro, Dan McCullers and Howard Jones are three players to watch as they must capitalize on all of their opportunities as the preseason winds down
Mauro and McCullers are very raw at this point, but both players have upside as potential starters or quality backups. Mauro moved ahead of Brian Arnfelt and Nick Williams and has been working with the second-team defense for most of training camp, while McCullers size could be a valuable asset against the run.
While both players need time to develop before they can be counted on stepping on the field with the defense, neither has been a complete liability. There is a bit more of a question when it comes to Jones.
Jones has recovered three fumbles and scored one touchdown—something that has certainly caught the eye of his coaches. However, he has not been the one to create the plays. That honor goes to Vic So’oto, another player vying for a roster spot.
When it comes to the final cuts, Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette believes that Jones will be the “team’s toughest decision.”
Between Jones, So’oto, Mauro, McCullers and others, the front office and coaching staff will have a lot of thinking to do when it comes to making the final cuts.