Five Matchups To Watch will be a weekly series run before each Pittsburgh Steelers game, becoming more in-depth once the regular season is underway. In this piece I’ll highlight several of the better one-on-one or unit battles to watch during the game, but not in the way you’re accustomed to seeing articles like this appear. Once games get underway, I’ll be including GIFs of each player or positional group’s tendencies or schemes, and how that matches up with the opposition’s tendencies or schemes. The goal is to give you specific battles to watch on Sundays, but to do so in an informative and detailed way.
Preseason matchups are admittedly difficult to predict, because you never know how long each team will keep their starters in or when a player may simply sit out of a game for maintenance purposes. Nevertheless, I’ll give it my best shot here, with the mutual understanding that you can generally expect to see these players or groups of players matched up against each other for a considerable amount of time tonight.
1. DE Stephon Tuitt vs. OG Brandon Linder
This matchup of two dynamic second-year players might be the one I am looking forward to the most in anticipation of tonight’s contest. Linder had a strong first year in Jacksonville, and is generally considered to be one of the team’s building blocks moving forward. Tuitt has really flashed in practice and during the Hall of Fame Game, looking almost unblockable at times. His conversion of speed-to-power is startling, and should clash brilliantly with the hard-nosed style of Linder. The Jaguars guard is the type of mauling presence that will bring the physicality on every snap, so Tuitt will need to consistently match his tenacity in the trenches.
2. DT Michael Bennett vs. Steelers 2nd Team Interior Offensive Line
Bennett may move around Jacksonville’s front thanks to his positional versatility, but the sixth round pick is reportedly already opening eyes in training camp. How he fell that far in the draft we may never know, but he’ll likely see plenty of time tonight against fellow rookies B.J. Finney and Reese Dismukes. Finney really needs to bounce back after an up-and-down game against the Vikings, as that ninth offensive line spot is firmly up for grabs at this point. Bennett is a quick and agile lineman who can be tough to block if he improves his consistency. Should be a great barometer to measure these young guys on an even playing field.
3. TE Julius Thomas vs. Steelers Tampa Two
Considering the deep drops the Steelers consistently asked their middle linebackers to get last Sunday to create a Tampa Two look, it makes sense to expect some of the same schematics tonight. Thomas is one of those rare tight ends that can stretch the field and stress safeties in coverage, so his athleticism could be a tough test for Lawrence Timmons and/or Ryan Shazier to carry vertically. Secretly I’m also hoping for a few matchups with Shamarko Thomas in man coverage, so we can finally see the Steelers safety get a little bit of action against a worth adversary.
4. WR Sammie Coates vs. CB Nick Marshall
Marshall has drawn some rave reviews in his transition from college quarterback to NFL cornerback, and is looking to build on a strong training camp with a standout first preseason game. Coates has been up-and-down, but there are still flashes of big play potential and athleticism at times. He’s got to be engaged mentally and physically from snap-to-snap with more consistency, but the physical talent is clearly there. The entertainment factor obviously goes way up when you add in the fact that last year at Auburn, it was Marshall throwing touchdowns to Coates, whereas now he’ll be the one trying to prevent them.
5. OT Austin Pasztor vs. OLB Bud Dupree
Dupree closed out the week of practice on a high note, ravaging the Steelers second team blockers coming off the edge. He might see some action against starting RT Jeremy Parnell, but will likely face Pasztor for the majority of his reps tonight. Dupree’s athleticism and explosive first step could give the backup tackle fits, especially if the edge rusher continues to show progress in his counter game. Dupree clearly grew more comfortable as the Hall of Fame Game went on this past Sunday, and as his confidence grows, so should his impact along the defensive front.