The Steelers close out their 2011 preseason tonight as they take on the Panthers on the road in Charlotte. The Steelers had another strong showing last week against the Falcons and tonight is the last chance for a few players to make a big enough impression to make the team or the practice squad. Do not look for many of the starters to play tonight as this game will be used to look at the bubble players mostly. There still will be a few things to watch for though in the most meaningless game of the preseason. As I do every week, here are my 7 things to watch for tonight against the Panthers.
Bronco On Guard – In a bit of a curious move, Mike Tomlin has elevated Doug Legursky to the starting right guard spot for the final preseason game over Tony Hills and the initial word is that he could already have the spot nailed down for week 1 against the Ravens. Legursky likely rivals starting center Maurkice Pouncey as far as knowledge and understanding goes of the duties on each play and his short area quickness is a strong asset of his in addition. The biggest knock on Legursky to this point is his build and he struggles at time holding his blocks due to his short arms and smallish size. The Steelers want to trap block more to the left this year and that has been the biggest weakness of Hills since he has gotten a look at the spot. Hills gets to the hole just fine, but has problems clearing the hole due to his larger size, as he tends to be too upright when trying to finish on the trap. Legursky will likely see most of his time tonight next to Trai Essex, as Essex will get plenty of time honing his emergency center skills. Look for the Bronco to get quite a bit of work on the move and out in space tonight and watch how he fares when a bigger body is lined up over the top of him. as this is also one of his weaknesses in the past.
Hello Cortez? – Rookie cornerback Cortez Allen looks likely to hit the field tonight for his first preseason game after missing most of training camp and the first three preseason games with a hamstring injury. Allen was drafted in the fourth round back in April and is described as a raw, project type corner. He looks to get a long look at one of the outside spots tonight as well some special teams work. We will get to see how well he understands the Dick LeBeau scheme and how good his coverage and tackling skills are. Allen is by no means a 53 man roster lock headed into this game, so he needs a good game to force the Steelers to keep him as a 7th cornerback. A poor performance could have him heading to the practice squad instead. Allen is the player I am most excited to see tonight.
Manny Ready? – There is a slim chance that we could see second-year wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders tonight for the first time this preseason. Sanders was deemed questionable by Tomlin earlier in the week as he attempts to recover from his left foot aggravation. Sanders underwent two offseason surgeries, one on each foot, after breaking his right one in the Super Bowl back in February. The Steelers shut him down early in camp and he had an injection of calcium and bone marrow to help speed up the left foot healing process. He needs the on-field work tonight if he can get it for sure. The jump made by fellow second-year receiver Antonio Brown and the addition of Jerricho Cotchery has likely slid him down the depth chart after his great rookie season and his climb back up it could possibly start tonight. The biggest win for him tonight though, if he indeed plays, will be not to suffer a setback. The Steelers will not risk playing him if he is not close to 100% though I would hope.
McHamstring – Hopefully joining Allen back on the field tonight will be veteran cornerback Bryant McFadden. McFadden, like Allen, has missed a ton of training camp and the first three preseason games with a hamstring/quad injury. McFadden is starting to be known as a player that can\’t seem to stay healthy, but Tomlin claims he is still his No. 1 left cornerback and makes it seem that he is not in jeopardy of being released in favor of Keenan Lewis. McFadden needs some full speed work tonight before taking on the Ravens in week 1 in which he will likely be tasked with covering Lee Evans for most of the day.
Gilmore Versus Saunders – Veteran tight end John Gilmore has looked average since being signed as the third tight end and the job could still be up for grabs tonight against the Panthers. Undrafted rookie Wesyle Saunders seemed to play much better against the Falcons last week and he will need a great showing tonight in my opinion to crack the 53 man roster. There are not too many spots left to be claimed, but this one certainly should be considered up for grabs. Gilmore has experience on his side right now and he could slam the door on Saunders with a good showing. If both perform well, the Steelers may be forced to keep both and start the season with four tight ends on the 53 man roster.
Good Old Chuck Or Double D? – Ben Roethlisberger will sit out tonight and Charlie Batch will get the start under center. Batch has had very limited work this preseason as he has not played in the last two preseason games. Batch has proved his worth as recently as last year when the Steelers were without Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon and he figures to be battling Dixon in this game for the backup job with Leftwich sidelined several weeks and possibly the season with his broken arm. Look for Batch and Dixon to maybe rotate quarters tonight as they fight for the job behind Roethlisberger.
Punt & Kick Coverage Improvement – The Steelers punt and kick coverage units need to improve as the Steelers head into tonight’s game with the Panthers ranked 30th in punt coverage as they have allowed an average of 14.3 yards thus far. The kick-off coverage has not been much better when there hasn\’t been a touchback, as the Steelers are tied for 29th in the league this preseason with a 33.5 yard average allowed. Sure, the preseason only offers up a small sample size and the units sometimes consist mostly of players that will not be around in a few more days, but tonight is the night to put your best unit out there. Two years ago this was a big problem as many remember and special team coach Al Everest did a great job of cleaning in up last season and hopefully he can tighten up the screws again.
Game Prediction: Steelers 29 Panthers 16