With Dwayne Haskins confirmed as getting his first chance to start this preseason for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Friday night in the finale against the Carolina Panthers, focus has shifted to how to former first-round pick will do in his audition as the starter, and what kind of situation he is in for that contest. One viewpoint is the opportunity he gets to play with the team’s top offense, and better showcase his skillset for the Steelers coaches and decision-makers.
Another angle is viewing the challenge Haskins gets in the form of the Panthers’ defense. Carolina is playing its preseason finale, too, and head coach Matt Rhule has indicated many of his top defenders will be out there to start the game. That gives Haskins an opportunity to face one of the league’s fastest-improving defenses, filled with high draft picks and young starters. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin lauded that Carolina defense during an interview with reporters Wednesday morning.
“They got a varsity group,” Tomlin said. “They got talent at all levels. [Brian] Burns is a talented man up front. [Derrick] Brown is a talented man up front from Auburn. They got quality linebacker play. They got a first-rounder at corner and they got a top-notch young safety. And so, like any professional group, their first wave of terror is that.”
Almost every player Tomlin mentioned is a bright spot and recent high draft pick of the Panthers, as the foundation of the team’s defense moving forward under Rhule. Burns is an edge rusher and sniffed a Pro Bowl opportunity last season in his second year, with nine sacks and three forced fumbles. He went 16th overall in 2019.
Brown is the highest draft pick of all the players praised by Tomlin, going seventh overall in 2020. As a rookie defensive tackle, he had eight tackles for loss and a pair of sacks. Joining him in that class was second-rounder Jeremy Chinn, the safety mentioned by Tomlin. Capable of playing deep or in a linebacking role, Chinn had 117 tackles, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, an interception, and two defensive touchdowns as a rookie, and was the runner-up to Washington’s Chase Young for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
And the Panthers added to that unit with the eighth overall pick in this year’s draft, selecting South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn. He joins a defense that features all those aforementioned starters, as well as others like corner Donte Jackson, who has 10 interceptions in three seasons as a second-round pick, and Shaq Thompson, who is in his seventh year as a starter, is a former first-rounder, and is coming off two straight 100-tackle seasons.
It is a defense loaded with talent, and as Tomlin said, at every level. The line will pressure Haskins in the pocket, the linebackers will challenge him both in coverage and on blitzes or scrambles, and the secondary will be a step up from the players Haskins has faced so far in the preseason. Tomlin is excited to see how Haskins meets that challenge.
“There’s some talent. They’re well-schooled, they got detailed fundamentals. It’s going to be an awesome challenge and platform for him,” Tomlin said.
In three preseason games coming off the bench, Haskins has completed 28 of 42 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, while leading multiple other scoring drives for the Steelers. His biggest showing came in the team’s second game, against the Philadelphia Eagles, where he went 16-22 for 161 yards and a touchdown.