Steelers' Projected Winners of Key Position Battles

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistAugust 18, 2021

Steelers' Projected Winners of Key Position Battles

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers moved to 2-0 in the preseason and took another step toward being season-ready with a 24-16 win over the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday. 

    Of course, winning games isn't what will have the Steelers ready for the regular season. It's using this time to get their young players reps, new acquisitions to learn the system and figure out who will take on the various roles throughout the roster. 

    Some spots are pretty easy to figure out. Ben Roethlisberger will be under center, Najee Harris is going to be the primary back and T.J. Watt will be rushing passers off the edge. 

    But there are a few unclear spots on the roster ahead of the regular season opener against the Buffalo Bills September 12. 


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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The Steelers offensive line is going to have a new look in 2021. Gone are mainstays Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva and David DeCastro. Utilityman Matt Feiler is no longer on the team either. 

    It leaves a lot of room for shuffling, and while some of the positions seem to have obvious answers, center does not. There still seems to be some competition as to who Roethlisberger will be getting snaps from. 

    The team's current depth chart lists veteran J.C. Hassenauer as the starter. He played in spot duty for the Steelers last season but previously played in Atlanta and the AAF. The 25-year-old committed five penalties in 303 snaps last season but didn't surrender a sack, per PFF

    His primary competition is coming from 2021 third-round pick Kendrick Green. The Illinois product was rock-solid in pass protection for the Illini, only surrendering two hits, four hurries and no sacks in his final year, per PFF

    He's missed some practices in camp but has run with the starters when healthy in camp. 

    Head coach Mike Tomlin has been coy when fielding questions about Green's status as a starter. 

    "You can surmise that," Tomlin said when asked whether the rookie was the starter. "But there will be no bold announcements."

    That sounds like a man who has made up his mind. 

    Prediction: Green starts Week 1

Backup Running Back

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    Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

    All eyes have been on Najee Harris this preseason for the Steelers. After all, he's the biggest improvement they made in their run-game personnel. There's a lot of weight on his shoulders to fix a running attack that was anemic last season. 

    But at some point, even Batman needs a Robin. 

    Harris is about to undergo the rigors of a 17-game professional schedule. Whether it's a game-by-game basis or a stretch of games, the Steelers are going to need real contributions from running backs other than Harris. 

    That's why the battle to be the backup could wind up being important. As it stands, the team's depth chart lists Benny Snell Jr. as the back behind Harris. 

    That doesn't jell with what The Athletic's Ed Bouchette has written about the running back battle. The longtime Steelers beat writer believes Snell could be cut in favor of Kalen Ballage. 

    That's because Snell has missed several practices with a leg injury, leaving Anthony McFarland with more reps. He saw nine carries in the game against the Eagles and scored a touchdown. 

    McFarland makes sense as the team's No. 2 back. He should make a big jump from Year 1 to Year 2 in the league. Snell will learn the hard way that the most important ability is availability. 

    Prediction: McFarland is the backup running back. 

Backup Quarterback

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Typically, the battle to be a backup quarterback isn't something that gets a lot of attention in the preseason. If all goes according to plan for Pittsburgh, they should not need to roll with another quarterback all season. 

    But that's a large gamble to take when you're talking about a 39-year-old who is entering his 18th season in the league with a major elbow injury in his history. 

    Should Big Ben go down, the Steelers will have a decision to make. They'll have to either go with Mason Rudolph, who has had multiple opportunities to start in both the regular season and preseason, or Dwayne Haskins a former first-round pick who they are providing another opportunity. 

    Haskins took a big step in challenging Rudolph in the second preseason game. The former Ohio State signal-caller looked strong against the Eagle with a 16-of-22 performance for a touchdown and no interceptions. 

    To be fair, Rudolph put on his own show against a hapless Philly secondary. He completed eight of nine pass attempts and hasn't really done anything to lose the job. 

    Consistency will be key as Haskins tries to put himself as the short and long-term succession plan after Ben Roethlisberger. 

    Prediction: Rudolph remains backup