The third preseason game is the closest thing to a regular season game in many facets It’s not the football version of opening night on Broadway, but it is as close to it gets to final dress rehearsal.
The Steelers will be visiting Philadelphia for a 7:30 p.m. game on Thursday at Lincoln Financial Field, and in today’s NFL this third preseason game provides the final, extended action for the many of the players Coach Mike Tomlin will be counting on when the regular season opens on Sept. 7.
“We’re going to continue to play our first units more than they have the previous week,” said Tomlin. “I haven’t decided on the exact number, but obviously you can assume it’s going to be more than they played in the previous games. It’s just the natural part of the process. You like to mock this week up and have it simulate a regular in-season week in a lot of ways, but with the short week and the number of people we’re working with it won’t be a complete mock week as in many instances in the past. We won’t have a complete comprehensive game plan, situationally, across the board, but it will be a nice step for us.”
It will be a step for the Steelers taken against an offense that’s unique to the league, but only for the reason of the pace at which it’s run. The Eagles offense isn’t necessarily cutting edge for the plays it runs, but what’s different is the pace at which the ball is snapped. Tomlin has said one of the goals of this preseason is to put as much stress on players and units as possible to see how individuals react. The Eagles’ pace will provide some stress Thursday night.
Didn’t the Steelers just play? It seems like only yesterday that Howard Jones was scooping up the ball and making a dash for the end zone in the waning seconds to try to prevent overtime against the Bills. Not to mention that there was some disconcerting news yesterday evening when the story broke that Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount were arrested on marijuana possession charges. Now, the Steelers have to make the trip across the Keystone State to retain supremacy over the Eagles.
What To Watch For
1. Playing Fast
The Eagles have taken flight under Chip Kelly’s offensive direction and have become one of the fastest teams in the league. The Eagles churn out more snaps per game than any other team. The Steelers defense, coming off a short week, will get a good test against the Eagles up-tempo offense. Similarly, the Steelers offense has used a lot of no huddle in the second preseason game against Buffalo. They will likely go to the no huddle again in Philadelphia to get some practice in a road environment with a hostile crowd.
2. The RB Situation
I didn’t expect to have to write about this, but with Le’ Dumb and Le’ Dumber getting arrested for marijuana possession on Wednesday afternoon in Ross Twp, the Steelers running back situation is suddenly in flux. The good news is that NFL suspensions usually don’t occur until after the judicial process has gone through to completion (Chiefs WR Dwayne Bowe was arrested for marijuana possession in November of last year and isn’t serving his suspension until Week 1 of this season). However, the Steelers could choose to internally discipline their employees, like they did with Santonio Holmes. The situation behind Bell and Blount is dire and there isn’t a starting-caliber running back to be found on the roster. It will be interesting to see if Bell and Blount get any playing time tonight or if the Steelers give more time to the other backs on the roster.
3. Keeping Up With The Joneses
Jarvis Jones got a sack against the Giants and did not play against the Bills. If he plays, the important things to watch for are him being able to set the edge against the run and to continue to develop his inside move on the pass rush. Last year, Jarvis was a bit of a one-trick pony with a speed rush to the outside but an undeveloped counter move to the inside and lacking the strength for a bull rush.
Landry Jones has looked bad in the first two preseason games and will need to have a bounce-back game against the Eagles. Last week against Buffalo in his 10 pass attempts he had: 2 sacks, 1 interception, 1 spike, 2 balls thrown behind receivers, 1 well thrown deep ball that drew a penalty, and 3 completions. Those aren’t exactly confidence-inspiring numbers and Jones will have to show that he is worthy of a roster spot as the Steelers head towards the first roster cut-down of the preseason.
Howard Jones has been one of the standouts of the two preseason games. In the opener, the undrafted free agent was flying around on special teams and returned a fumble for a touchdown. Against Buffalo, he had another fumble recovery at the end of the game and almost returned it for a touchdown. He came up just shy of the goal line but his return enabled Suisham to nail the game-winner and prevent overtime. Jones is squarely on the roster bubble and will need to continue to impress if he is going to make the final roster.
4. Roster Battles
While the third preseason game offers the most extensive playing time for the first units, it’s also a last, best opportunity for some other players to make enough of an impression either to earn a spot on the 53-man roster or possibly a role on offense, defense or special teams.
There are plenty of questions still remaining for the Steelers regarding the last 10-12 spots on the 53-man roster. Some of them center around how many players at a certain position will be kept. Will the Steelers keep 2 or 3 Quarterbacks? 2 or 3 Tight Ends? 8 or 9 Offensive Linemen?
At other positions, there are clear battles for position, such as Chris Carter vs Vic So’oto vs Howard Jones for the #4 OLB spot. Justin Brown, Derek Moye and Darrius Heyward-Bey remain entrenched in a battle for the 5th WR spot but haven’t had good QB play for them to showcase their abilities.Another poor outing from Martavis Bryant could drop him into this competition as well, but it’s hard to see the Steelers cutting their 4th round pick.
Robert Golden has stood out at safety, but will the Steelers be willing to part with veteran Will Allen or will they keep 5 safeties? At corner, Brice McCain and Antwon Blake have played okay and 5th round pick Shaq Richardson has been injured for much of camp. Has Daniel McCullers supplanted Hebron Fangupo as the 2nd string nose tackle? There are answers to all of these questions, but at this point we lack clarity. Hopefully the picture becomes clearer tonight.
5. No injuries
The Steelers have been incredibly fortunate this preseason that they have not had any significant injuries. This will be the last time we see most of the starters until the season opener against Cleveland. The starters should play most of the first half tonight, and if they can make it through 30 minutes of football without sustaining any serious injuries, this will be the healthiest the Steelers have been to start a season in quite a while. This is the most important aspect of the game and all other facets take a back seat to injuries in these games that don’t count.
The walking wounded, those unable to play against the Eagles, could find themselves at a disadvantage, because the first mandatory roster cutdown is 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 26 when all teams must be down to 75. Then on Saturday, Aug. 30, it’s the cutdown to 53.
“From an injury standpoint we have some people who are out definitively this week,” said Tomlin, “and we have some other guys we’ll hold out as we do this time of year. The guys who are definitely out: Eric Waters has a concussion, Shaquille Richardson has a lateral knee (injury), and he won’t participate. Cody Wallacehad a finger fracture that was fixed; he won’t participate. Greg Warren obviously won’t participate coming off his meniscus tear and surgery. Jordan Zumwalt with his groin injury will not participate.
“There are a variety of guys with soft tissue injuries kind of associated with this time of year whom we’ll leave the light on for and wait until the eleventh hour to see if they are available. Those guys are Will Allen with a hamstring, Tauren Poole with a hamstring, Devin Smith with a hamstring, and Will Johnson with a hamstring.
“We’re getting to the meat of this thing a little bit, and if guys are going to make a move it’s kind of now or never,” added Tomlin. “I like that feeling of urgency in the guys as we prepare this week and I think it’s creating a good competitive environment as we get back here in terms of continuing the team building on the South Side.”