Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Carolina Panthers: What To Watch For Tonight
For most teams, the fourth preseason game is a more of a walk through, and a final showcase for players on the bubble to make their case for a roster spot.
This year, for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the game is an important step for a team that has seemed almost wayward since their tumultuous off-season forced several uncomfortable situations in training camp.
Here's what to watch for tonight as the Steelers take on the Carolina Panthers.
1. The Quarterback Quandry
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In a season of uncertainty at the sport's most important position, only one thing is certain:
The Steelers will be without Ben Roethlisberger for at least the first four games of the season.
While it's still possible that commissioner Roger Goodell could leave the quarterback's suspension at six games, it is more and more likely to be four. Rumors indicate it could be less, but there is no substantial proof backing them.
After that, things are less certain.
Both Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon have had significant bright spots in their performances during the preseason. Unfortunately, both have looked awful or, at best, mediocre more often than not.
Coach Mike Tomlin has declined to name a starter for tonight's game and also demurred when asked which of his quarterbacks will start the team's opener against Atlanta. That uncertainty has fueled much criticism of Tomlin's handling of the battle.
It has been clear all along that the coaches prefer Leftwich to Dixon, but Leftwich has seen the least amount of time with the starters thanks to an odd commitment to getting Roethlisberger as much work as possible.
Tonight, Leftwich should get significant work with the starters and could play as much as the first half. While his performance likely won't dictate who begins the season under center, it will go a long way to exhibiting exactly what fans can expect from this team.
2. Backfield Backup Battle
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At the beginning of training camp, running back was considered to be a mostly stable position. Rashard Mendenhall would be the feature back, rookie Jonathan Dwyer would back him up and work in short yardage situations, and Mewelde Moore would return as the third down option and as a receiving threat out of the backfield.
A little more than a month later, things aren't so clear. Moore and Dwyer have been major disappointments while second-year man Isaac "Ike" Redman has emerged as a likely choice to backup Mendenhall.
Redman blends a hard-nosed style with good speed, sure hands, and a nose for openings. He's excellent at gaining yards and has probably been the team's best back during the preseason. After being a surprise final cut last year, Redman looks to have solidified his position this year.
What needs to be decided tonight is which other running back stays on the roster.
Dwyer arrived out of shape and quickly got injured, drawing the ire of Mike Tomlin. Then, during his first series of the preseason, he went down injured again. He did finally put together a more impressive performance against the Broncos, but that is tempered by the knowledge that he was running against reserves who, like him, are scuffling to make the roster.
Moore has never been much of a runner with the Steelers, having better luck as a receiver on third downs. This season, he's looked a step slower and much less effective now that teams know what to expect with him. Tonight will be his last chance to prove he can run effectively and still produce for an offense looking for playmakers.
With the renewed commitment to the running game, it is likely fullback Frank Summers will stick on the roster, meaning both Moore and Dwyer may be cut. Tonight is the time to stand out. If one of them has a stellar effort, it could bump Summers off the roster or force the Steelers to keep three backs and a fullback.
3. Rookie Receivers Vs. Veteran Pass Catchers
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The Steelers signed two receivers in the off-season, acquiring former San Francisco 49er Arnaz Battle and re-acquiring former Steeler Antwaan Randle El. Both were heralded for the steady veteran presence and for their ability to contribute on special teams.
Then, the team chose both Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown in the draft's middle rounds. They were expected to battle it out for the fifth spot.
Training camp and the preseason have changed all of that.
Both Sanders and Brown have made major contributions. Brown looks to be the more polished, but Sanders has big play ability. Both are blazing fast.
Battle and Randle El, for all of the hype, have done little to justify the money spent on them. Battle has been good on special teams, but not much of a receiving threat. Randle El might as well have been invisible so far.
A good effort by both rookies tonight could push one off the roster (Battle being the more likely candidate for the cut list).
Brown seems to be challenging Randle El for time in the slot, where Mike Wallace had such a brilliant rookie campaign last season. Sanders is likely a good fourth or very good fifth option since he needs to polish his route running and ball security. His field awareness, as was so evident against Denver, is also a concern.
The sense around town is that Randle El could be moved to more of a specialty role, where he works as a part-time return man and as a multi-threat weapon. Brown could push him out of return duties if he continues to flash his speed.
4. Defensive Depth
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The defensive side of the ball is much more settled when it comes to starters, with Bryant McFadden the only new (and not really new if you consider he's only been gone for a year) starter among the 11 positions.
Depth is a different story.
Behind starters Bryant McFadden and Ike Taylor, the cornerback depth chart remains unsolved.
Keenan Lewis had an opportunity to seize either a starting spot or a key backup position during the Denver game, but multiple personal fouls showed he's still not ready to be an every down option. He should get another look this week with McFadden out, but he'll have to do a lot tonight to move back towards the top of the list.
William Gay, who was by far the team's worst defensive player last season, has looked at home again in the nickel and dime packages. He's been working out with the first team in McFadden's absence and should start tonight. A good effort from him will put him squarely as the third option.
Joe Burnett has had a quiet camp and preseason, and is likely on the bubble along with rookie Crezdon Butler. Anthony Madison will likely win a spot for his special teams prowess, so Butler and Burnett will likely be battling for one spot. Burnett has experience, but Butler has better intangibles. Tonight should decide who stays and who goes.
Tonight will also be the chance for rookie linebackers Thaddeus Gibson, Jason Worilds, and Stevenson Sylvester to prove they belong. With top backup jobs already going to Larry Foote and Keyaron Fox, only one, maybe two of these three will be around after the dust settles.
5. Last Chance For The Bubble Players
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For several players, this is truly their last chance to get off the bubble. Here's a list of who needs a big game tonight to remain in black and gold:
1. Stefan Logan, KR/WR: Logan may have set the record for return yardage last season, but he's had a poor showing this time around. With Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, and Antwaan Randle El all available for returns, the position is a lot more crowded this time around. Logan also is not a threat on offense, so his lack of versatility may cost him.
2. Mewelde Moore, RB: Moore hasn't shown much next to Isaac Redman, and is even being outperformed by rookie Jonathan Dwyer at this point. His lack of true running ability may push him off the team.
3. Jonathan Dwyer, RB: Poor conditioning is one of Mike Tomlin's pet peeves. He'll get a chance tonight to prove last week was no fluke. If he does, he should be the third back and push Moore off. If not, he should make the practice squad.
4. Stevenson Sylvester, LB: Drafted mostly for his ability to contribute on special teams, Sylvester is in a crowded linebacker corps. He hasn't been on the tips of any tongues this preseason, so tonight will be his chance to shine with the starters not expected to play long.
5. David Johnson, FB/TE: Johnson is also on the bubble thanks to the crowded backfield and the return to health of Frank Summers. Johnson is the team's third-best tight end, so his position is much less certain now that he will likely not be needed as a fullback.
6. Flozell Adams, OT: If the Steelers feel they can get better production out of a line without Adams, he won't be around. As it stands now, he should make the team. But there are plenty of younger players who'd love that spot.
7. Justin Hartwig, C/OG: Hartwig's been unseated by rookie Maurkice Pouncey, but he could slide over a spot and take over at right guard if the team parts with Adams and moves Trai Essex to tackle. Hartwig is still a contributor, but his shortcomings became apparent after Pouncey starting taking regular snaps with the starters.