The Pittsburgh Steelers will open their 2018 preseason Thursday night on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles and while the team’s first practice game certainly won’t include several starters playing much, if any, there are certainly quite a few things to be on the lookout for throughout the contest.
Below, I have cobbled together for you what I feel are the top 10 things to watch for during the Steelers Thursday night preseason game against the Eagles:
Will No. 1 play like a No. 1? – The Steelers spent their first round selection in this year’s draft on safety Terrell Edmunds out of Virginia Tech. While Edmunds has reportedly had a nice training camp so far, many still insist that the Steelers reached for him because of where many analyst, both professional and amateur, had him ranked during the offseason. Edmunds should get plenty of playing time Thursday night at the strong safety spot and due to where he was drafted, you can bet his play against the Eagles will be very closely scrutinized, as it should be.
The young guns – The Steelers intend on playing three of their four quarterbacks Thursday night as starter Ben Roethlisberger will sit the contest out. While many probably aren’t all that excited to see Landry Jones play against the Eagles, he probably won’t see too much action just the same. It will be interesting to see which one of Joshua Dobbs and Mason Rudolph follows Jones into the Thursday night game, assuming he indeed starts. Logic tells you it will be Dobbs, but I won’t be too terribly shocked if it winds up being Rudolph. Regardless of the Thursday night signal-caller order, it will be fun to see Dobbs and Rudolph play quite a bit against the Eagles and you can bet we’ll be breaking down every aspect of the play of both of them starting on Friday and through the weekend.
Seconds in command? – The Steelers have a number of second-year players that they’re expecting to make huge jumps in 2018. Leading that list are a few former draft picks that didn’t see the field either much, or any, at their primary positions as rookies in running back James Conner, cornerback Cameron Sutton, cornerback Brian Allen and outside linebacker Keion Adams. Allen and Adams might not even play Thursday night because of injuries and it will be really disappointing if that’s ultimately the case. Conner and Sutton, however, both have reportedly had great offseasons in addition to nice second training camps. Those two players figure to get plenty of playing time Thursday night and have solid showings to boot.
Physicality of JaySam – While Steelers rookie running back Jaylyn Samuels seemingly enters the NFL as a jack of all trades, one trade we still don’t know if he possesses is an adequate ability to be a blocker, and especially in pass protection. Even Roethlisberger said recently that he wants to see more physicality out of Samuels and I can’t rightly blame him based on the college tape of his I’ve watched. I could care less if he lines up in the slot during the preseason. I want to see him used exclusively in the backfield as a runner, a pass catcher and a blocker. I also will be watching every special teams snap of his during the Thursday night game very closely and you should as well.
Catching on quickly enough? – The Steelers drafted wide receiver James Washington in the second-round this year and the 2017 Biletnikoff Award winner and Oklahoma State product will hopefully be not only a more reliable deep threat than Martavis Bryant was, but a more well-rounded route runner and producer as well. Washington played most of his college snaps lined up wide to the right so it will be interesting to watch him move around and play different sides in the Steelers offense starting Saturday night in Philadelphia. A few other very young wide receivers that should be worth watching Thursday night are Marcus Tucker, Damoun Patterson, and Tevin Jones, who has generated the most recent training camp buzz. However, make no mistake that Washington will be the one who should have your most attention Thursday night.
Swinging backup tackles? – Even if starting tackles Alejandro Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert wind up playing Thursday, they’ll likely be out of the contest in a blink of an eye. Following Villanueva into the game art left tackle should be Chukwuma Okorafor, the team’s second of two third-round draft picks this year. Following Gilbert into the game at right tackle might be Jake Rodgers, who bounced on and off the Steelers practice squad last year. The versatile Matt Feiler might could also see some action at right tackle Thursday night. Will, either Okorafor or Rodgers, or even both, be allowed to swing and play both sides Thursday night? That’s something certainly worth watching for.
Short lines on the edge – Thanks to injuries suffered during training camp by outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, the Steelers will open their preseason with just a few players at that position. In fact, there’s even a chance that second-year outside linebacker Keion Adams will ultimately miss the preseason opener with an undisclosed injury. Other than Adams, all the Steelers have at outside linebacker as far as healthy players go are Anthony Chickillo, Farrington Huguenin and Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, a rookie undrafted free agent out of Toledo. The lines have been so short at outside linebacker the last week that rookie undrafted free agent inside linebacker Matthew Thomas has had to take some snaps during practice on the outside. The outside linebackers that ultimately dress and play Thursday night should have a busy night as they all will likely be asked to help out on special teams as well. The byproduct of all this should be that we get a lot of tape of Adeniyi to watch.
Mack attack – Personally, I expect Tyler Matakevich to start at the mack inside linebacker position alongside Vince Williams Thursday night. However, whether he does or doesn’t really shouldn’t mean much of anything to anyone just the same. Also expected to see playing time at the mack and perhaps even the buck position Thursday night will be Jon Bostic, one of the few unrestricted free agents the Steelers signed this past March. My money is on Bostic eventually becoming the starter by Week 1, but with that said, I really look forward to analyzing Matakevich’s preseason snaps as well. Oh, and I really look forward to seeing the rookie Thomas play quite a few snaps inside Thursday night.
Setting Davis free – The Steelers have moved third-year safety Sean Davis to the free spot this offseason and it will be interesting to see how his transition to yet another position, his third in three years, ultimately goes. Davis hasn’t played very much free safety during his football career but he believes his baseball background might help him some in his transition to the position. The Steelers would be smart to give Davis quite a few snaps at free safety throughout the entire preseason and that means Thursday night in Philadelphia as well.
Will rule changes rule? – Will we see any lowering of the helmet penalties Thursday night? The new rule related to what’s legal and illegal now still seems to have several people confused and that probably includes several players. Only two such penalties were called in the Hall of Fame game last week and I’m sure Steelers fans will be forced to discuss a few more in the forthcoming four preseason games. On top of the new lowering of the helmet rule, it will also be interesting to see the new kickoff rule in action as it relates to the Steelers and what kind of strategy is potentially used to take advantage of it. Will this new rule wind up helping Steelers rookie wide receiver Quadree Henderson right out of the chute Thursday night? He was a great returner in college at Pittsburgh and more space combined with players coming at him a bit slower should theoretically play into his favor.