It’s finally that time of year again. It’s early August, and that means NFL games are ready to be played. The Pittsburgh Steelers have the honor this year of being a part of the first of the season, facing the Dallas Cowboys in the Hall of Fame game, during an extended weekend that will also mark the enshrinement of five of their own, including Troy Polamalu and Alan Faneca.
It will also mark the NFL debut of what the team is hoping will be the next great career in Pittsburgh, with first-round running back Najee Harris. Head coach Mike Tomlin said that the rookie will play in all four preseason games, explaining that it’s appropriate for a player in his position to acclimate to the environment.
I think Harris will be the one player more than any other that people will be watching for tonight, and particularly how he is able to create yardage on his own. Another major observation point will be the play of the offensive line.
Nearly the entire unit will look different this year, but they’ll also be playing under a different philosophy with a new offensive line coach and new offensive coordinator. How will that new mentality show up on the field, perhaps especially in short-yardage situations?
Defensively, our eyes will be on the cornerbacks and the outside linebackers. Alex Highsmith is entering his second season and expected to start, but they also acquired Melvin Ingram, who could press him for playing time, if not the starting job outright. Highsmith is having a strong camp, but this is his first work in-stadium since January.
With Joe Haden sitting out, we’re going to get nice, long looks at all options in the secondary. James Pierre will start the game outside, and Antoine Brooks Jr. will start in the slot. Only one of them can be the Steelers’ nickel defender, and if Pierre wants to earn that role, he’s going to work harder to convince the coaches that they need to push Cameron Sutton inside most of the time.
And then there’s the quarterback position. Ben Roethlisberger won’t be playing, but everybody’s going to want eyes on Dwayne Haskins, who should play a lot of snaps in the middle of the game, though Mason Rudolph was announced as the starter. He’s done some good things in camp, and people are monitoring this potential redemption story around the league—starting with his ability to earn a backup job.
It remains to be seen who’s available, but I’m also excited for the young tight ends, particularly Zach Gentry, to see if they have a viable number three option. Pat Freiermuth is the clear number two—or 1B—but they haven’t had a true number three in years.
Last, but not least, it’s time to get a look at the Steelers’ young wide receivers—the bottom of the depth chart guys. You’ve heard the name of Rico Bussey, the rookie college free agent. Can someone like him, or Mathew Sexton, or Tyler Simmons, translate what they’ve been doing in training camp into a stadium and make the team have a conversation about carrying six receivers?