This will be a four part series of things to look for in the final weeks of 2009 Steelers preseason. This series will look at remaining position battles, injury updates and prognoses, play calling and coaching, and season preview prior to the Sept. 10 opener against the Tennessee Titans.
The Steelers have played two preseason games thus far, winning at home in the Super Bowl rematch against the Cardinals and dropping the game at FexEx Field against the Redskins last Saturday. While the road for the seventh Super Bowl title is well under way, the Steelers have several questions that need answers soon. Some of those answers are:
Third Wide Receiver: The Steelers have used the third WR set as well as anyone this decade. This position garnered big free agent paydays for Antwaan Randle El in 2006 and Nate Washington this past offseason. The question is, who will become the third WR this season?
Limas Sweed, last season's second round draft pick, has had an excellent camp and has made some outstanding catches in the two preseason games. However, Sweed has not completely shut the door on this battle.
Rookie Mike Wallace has impressed the coaches, the opposition, and the Steeler Nation with his deep speed and Ferrari-like acceleration. Free agent veteran pickup Shaun McDonald has not done much to separate himself from the pack either. While I believe that Sweed will win the job to begin the season, do not count out Wallace as only a return specialist. Which leads to....
Kick Returner: Wallace will definitely be given the shot to be one of the return specialists and the other will be former CFL mighty mite Stefan Logan. Logan impressed with several breath taking returns on Saturday against the Redskins, nearly breaking loose on several runs.
Coupled with fifth round pick Joe Burnett's fumbles on punt returns, look for Wallace and Logan to be the kick returners and Logan to be given the first shot to be the punt returner.
The Steelers can still use running back Mewelde Moore on punts inside the 20-yard line like they did last season but it will be exciting to see Logan catch a punt and weave through the coverage like a ski slalom course. Plus Logan can also be used on offense a la Darren Sporles with the Chargers, getting some looks on third downs.
Fourth CB: Now onto Burnett. I was not a big fan of Burnett when the Steelers drafted him from Central Florida back in April and now he is proving me right. He is not especially great in coverage and was easily beaten by Marko Mitchell for a TD in the second preseason game.
In the first game, Burnett got an interception because rookie defensive lineman Evander "Ziggy" Hood forced the issue on Cardinals 3rd QB and former Steeler Brian St. Pierre. Burnett has not impressed at all and his fumbles on punts evoke horrible memories of Ricardo Colclough.
3rd round pick Keenan Lewis has looked OK in coverage and has not had issues that Burnett has had thus far. With Ike Taylor, William Gay, and Deshea Townsend locking down the top three CB slots, fourth CB slot is open. Fifth CB slot I believe will go to veteran Anthony Madison, who has been one of the better special teams coverage players for the Steelers the last several seasons.
This means either Lewis or Burnett will be the fourth CB or not make the active roster. Given everything I have stated above, I like Lewis's chances a lot better than Burnett's.
Short yardage back: Last season, the Steelers rushing offense was not very good on goal to go and short yardage situations. Memories of Mewelde Moore getting stuffed by the Giants and the Cowboys still remain fresh on my mind.
The Steelers used Gary Russell with some success; Russell even scored the first TD in the Super Bowl. However, the Steelers released Russell after the April draft.
The Steelers drafted Frank Summers in the fifth round this past April to become the short yardage back. However, Summers has not evoked memories of Jerome Bettis rumbling into the end zone from three yards out on a consistent basis or made third and one an automatic first down for the Steelers offense.
However, undrafted rookie Isaac Redman has made some highlights in training camp with his ability to get the tough yards and introduced himself to NFL world with two short TDs against the Cardinals in the first preseason game. Redman did not get much of an opportunity in the second preseason game but so far has impressed more than Summers has.
Not only that, last season's first round pick Rashard Mendenhall has not looked especially sharp in short yardage situations (or in any situations against top defenses in general) after spending most of last season in injured reserve, further making the Redman-Summers battle a lot hotter than it should be.
While most will believe that the Steelers would want their drafted player to win the job, the Steelers have had a history of rewarding undrafted RBs with active roster spots. From John Kuhn in 2005, Willie Parker in 2004, to R.J. Bowers in 2001, all of these undrafted rookie RBs won active roster spots.
If Summers does not have great games against the Bills and Panthers in the final weeks of preseason, look for Redman to win the final RB spot to open the season and Summers to be relegated to the practice squad.
Tomorrow, injury and health issues facing the Steelers before the regular season opener.