What to Watch for in Pittsburgh Steelers' Preseason Week 1 Matchup
While multiple starters won't be taking part and others will be doing so only in a limited capacity, there is still much to watch out for and learn from Pittsburgh's first official unofficial game leading up to the 2017 NFL season.
Here is what to keep an eye on when the Steelers face off against the Giants at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Joshua Dobbs' Steelers Debut
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin announced on Wednesday that No. 1 quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and No. 1 wideout Antonio Brown will not be appearing in Friday night's game against the New York Giants, and he declared that the starter for the contest will be rookie quarterback Joshua Dobbs.
Dobbs is getting the nod not only because, in Tomlin's words, a quarterback is "defined by how you perform under certain circumstances, and it'll be good to get [Dobbs] in that stadium on Friday night and watch him in terms of putting his skills on display," but also because the incumbent No. 2 quarterback, Landry Jones, has missed time with an abdominal injury. This will make Bart Houston the backup for Dobbs.
Dobbs was drafted in the fourth round this year to add depth to the quarterback room, push Jones for his spot on the depth chart and perhaps someday develop into an heir for Roethlisberger. But for now, he has to prove that what he's learned on the practice field will translate in a positive way to an actual live-game situation.
Steelers.com's Bob Labriola wrote: "Like most rookie quarterbacks, Dobbs has been wildly inconsistent, but on the plus-side that description contains enough examples of good things to keep it interesting."
That will likely be what we see out of Dobbs on Friday night given that his professional career is still in its early days. The key will be whether Dobbs improves in each of his preseason opportunities.
Which First-Teamers Play, and How Much?
The Steelers released their first depth chart of the summer on Tuesday, and though it indicates little-to-nothing about how the roster will look when the regular season begins (it was compiled by the team's PR department and not the coaching staff), it does contain one key piece of information—the non-participation list.
The list includes players who are dealing with various injuries, as well as Le'Veon Bell, who continues his holdout, and receiver Martavis Bryant, who was only cleared to practice as a condition of his reinstatement by the league on Wednesday. And it contains numerous first-teamers on both offense and defense, which could further limit how many starters actually get playing time on Friday night.
Head coach Tomlin made it clear on Wednesday that those listed as non-participants aren't necessarily ruled out for Friday's game, nor that those who aren't on that list are guaranteed to play. But one thing would be made crystal clear for any incumbent or presumed first-teamer who sees action on Friday—they need the reps.
Who gets them and how much playing time that results in could indicate numerous things, ranging from uneasy footing on the roster, a basic need to see them working as part of an offensive or defensive unit, sheer necessity based on the down, distance and situation or something else.
But first-teamers typically don't do much work in a team's first preseason game without a reason, so keeping close watch of the Steelers' starters who play Friday could be an important piece in the summer's puzzle.
Four Receiver Sets?
In a June interview with Ron Lippock for Steelers Depot, Steelers receiver Demarcus Ayers said that the offense would feature more four-receiver sets in 2017.
It makes sense; the Steelers are, on paper, loaded with receiving talent, beginning with Antonio Brown and continuing with the likes of Bryant, rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster, Eli Rogers, Ayers, Sammie Coates and Justin Hunter.
But we may not be seeing too many of those four-receiver sets in Pittsburgh's first preseason game.
Bryant has just been reinstated and won't be ready to suit up for a game on such short notice. Coates has been working his way back from a knee scope. Brown isn't playing against the Giants. And Hunter and Ayers have both missed practices this week for unknown reasons, per Alex Kozora of Steelers Depot, which means the Steelers might be too thin at wideout to experiment often with this new wrinkle of their offense.
The preseason, though, is a time to install certain game plans in a live-game situation. But it's also a time to keep those new tricks hidden from regular-season opponents and prevent them from having any tape to examine.
So, we may see four-receiver sets on Friday—or at any time in the preseason—but we may not see them at all. But it's important to keep in mind that the Steelers have a new offensive strategy they are planning to employ this season.
Quality of Offensive Line Depth
Last year, the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive line was one of the very best in the NFL. It helped lead 1,760 rushing yards and kept its quarterbacks protected to the tune of just 21 combined sacks taken by Roethlisberger and Jones in the regular season.
Football Outsiders ranked the Steelers' line third in run blocking and fourth in pass protection for the 2016 season, while Pro Football Focus has the Steelers' line—which has not changed in the intervening months—as the third-best entering the 2017 season.
But part of that success a year ago was attributed to the abilities of the Steelers' starting five—Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert, from left to right—to stay healthy. Only two players missed a combined two games due to injury. Expecting the same to be the case in 2017 or any year would not be a prudent strategy.
Thus, the Steelers need to amass as much high-quality backup talent on the offensive line as possible, and our first look at how successful they have been at doing so will be on Friday night against the Giants.
Pouncey isn't expected to play on Friday, which makes B.J. Finney his replacement (as well as also the backup left guard). Left tackle Villanueva missed Wednesday's practice with a concussion, according to Kozora of Steelers Depot, making Jerald Hawkins his backup.
These players will be the ones the Steelers will be forced to turn to should any of their starters suffer injury during the regular season, and the goal is to have as little drop-off as possible when and if that happens.
Thus, seeing how the reserve linemen handle opening up the run game and protecting the passer is just as important as seeing the starters do those jobs well.
How L.T. Walton Is Used
One of the bigger beneficiaries of playing time during the preseason are the players who are position-versatile. Coaches love to test them out at the varying positions they can play to see where the strengths best lie and where they could play.
For the Steelers, one of these players is defensive lineman L.T. Walton, a 2015 sixth-round draft pick who first garnered attention a year ago in his role filling in at defensive end after Cameron Heyward suffered a season-ending injury.
According to Steelers.com's Labriola: "Walton has learned nose tackle, and this added versatility has increased his value while also making him more dangerous competition for a roster spot."
Labriola also noted that Walton has also been used in coverage situations against running backs during training camp.
Walton is listed as a backup at Heyward's left defensive end spot in the preliminary depth chart. But it would not be surprising to also see him handle defensive tackle duties as the Steelers also try to see if Walton would also be a strong candidate to be the No. 2 nose tackle behind Javon Hargrave.
The more we see Walton—and the more places we see him play on the defense—the more the likelihood his profile on the defense will increase this season.
The Running Backs
With Bell continuing his holdout and rookie James Conner managing an AC sprain in his shoulder, the backup crew of running backs will handle the carries on Friday against the Giants.
Based on the preliminary depth chart, that makes Fitzgerald Toussaint the starter, Knile Davis the No. 2 and Terrell Watson, Trey Williams and Brandon Brown-Dukes the backups.
While the biggest camp battle going at the position is between Toussaint and Davis, the Steelers will doubtlessly want to take a long look at the trio behind them in order to determine if more depth on the 53-man roster is required and how many backs could make the practice squad in September.
Steelers Depot's Kozora wrote on Wednesday that, "Watson was the clear No. 3 running back of those who were healthy, running ahead of Brandon Brown-Dukes and Trey Williams," adding "neither have the size or power of Watson, giving him a unique leg up in the race."
But it will also be interesting to see how all of these backs are used, as well as how often. Those getting the most touches clearly are the ones the coaches want to see more from, but with the Steelers relying on running backs—particularly Bell—heavily in the passing game, it will also be interesting to see which backs are more involved as receivers.
Bell's absence and Conner's injury have presented the Steelers' more marginal backs with massive opportunities to make positive impressions. Who does so against the Giants could have major depth chart implications later in the month.