With the Pittsburgh Steelers having just said goodbye for the 50th time to Latrobe, PA, the defending AFC North champions are taking part in their third preseason this afternoon against the Green Bay Packers.
The Steelers are still very much in the midst of a fact-finding mission, and the roster-building process is beginning to ramp up as we get closer to the first set up cuts, so there are plenty of things to be looking out for while watching the game today.
For starters, head coach Mike Tomlin said that more of the regulars would be participating in the special teams units in the game, which largely means the carryovers from the regular season last year.
That means whoever gets playing time that was not part of those teams a year ago are getting valuable snaps that the coaches are looking to see from them. One person in particular that I will be looking for is Anthony Chickillo.
The Steelers’ sixth-round draft pick has been involved in every special teams unit for the Steelers thus far, barring the field goal kicking and extra point units, which says a lot about his standing in that regard, but in order to take the next step, he needs to be on the field with the special teams ‘starters’.
Speaking of starters, we will be seeing more of them over the course of the next two games. The first-team offense looked dominant in their one drive, helping the Steelers jump out to an 8-0 lead, but can they get in the end zone again, and if they do, will they attempt another two-point conversion?
The defensive starters certainly have more questions about them than their counterparts, of course. Shamarko Thomas and Jarvis Jones especially have all eyes focused on them as they look to prove that they are starting-caliber players.
Thomas played a healthy amount of snaps in the previous preseason game, but did not get many opportunities to make an impact. His most notable play was being late to shift over in C2 coverage, allowing a long touchdown.
Jones did not see as many snaps, but he also didn’t show a good deal. While he held the edge well several times against the run, he labored shedding blocks, and gave up more yardage while making the tackle than necessary.
Second-year nose tackle Daniel McCullers should be seeing his first playing time of the preseason, and that should certainly be a sight to behold. This will be the first opportunity for most to get a glimpse at the progress that he’s made since his rookie season.
His return to the lineup will also make things more interesting for Cam Thomas, who had been used exclusively at nose tackle during the first two games in the base defense. That is obviously not the plan heading into the regular season, so we will want to get a look at how he is doing at defensive end as well.
Hopefully we will also get a nice, long look at rookie L.T. Walton, who appears to be in the driver’s seat to lock up the sixth and final defensive line spot. He has flashed his athleticism, but has looked pretty raw otherwise. The Steelers have had a long week since his last showing, so we’ll see if he’s been coached up.
First-rounder Bud Dupree certainly got coached up in camp last week after a heated series of altercations with teammates. Perhaps the frustration of a difficult transition has been getting to him. While his slow development is understandable, it would be a great relief to see him make some type of impactful play in this game.
The last few remaining battles take place at cornerback, safety (hypothetically), guard, and punter, so we will be wanting to monitor these competitors as well.
At cornerback, the sixth spot is coming down to third-year B.W. Webb, who spent the 2014 season on the Steelers’ roster after being claimed off waivers, and Kevin Fogg, a first-year player who has been getting interceptions in camp.
While both corners have shown a willingness to be aggressive playing the pocket, it seems to me that Webb is more disciplined, while Fogg is a more willing tackler. Webb has more experience playing all over the formations, while Fogg is still making these adjustments. Webb also has an edge on special teams, where Fogg definitely needs to make up ground.
If the Steelers end up carrying a fifth safety, will it be Ross Ventrone, who missed most of camp and the first two preseason games? Will it be one of the first-year players, Alden Darby and Ian Wild? Or will the team just bolster their depth at the position on the practice squad? Either way, the pecking order will be decided in these last three games.
Finally, second-year interior lineman Chris Hubbard has to have lost a solid grip on his roster spot after putting together two very poor performances. Amongst his competition, however, only B.J. Finney has yet to show much. Both should play a healthy amount in this game, including Hubbard’s first in-game look at center.
And then there were the punters, Brad Wing, the incumbent, and Jordan Berry, the challenger. Berry has had some nice hang time in spite of some of the returns allowed off his foot, but perhaps with the starting coverage unit out there, they will get that net average down.