The Steelers are strong top to bottom, but depth is a critical component to any championship-caliber team. Tonight's first preseason game, at Philadelphia, is the first major step toward paring the roster down to 53, and it seems the Steelers will be forced to cut a few talented players in that process. Some are just looking to solidify their current positions.
Here, we're going to go over a few offensive guys who will help their respective causes with strong performances tonight.
1. FB Will Johnson
He's already the clear favorite for King of Training Camp honors as elected by the populace of Behind The Steel Curtain. Not only will tonight carry with it the intrigue of seeing a pure fullback operate within a Steelers offense, but Johnson's intrigue is enough to possibly carry himself from unsigned and undrafted status to Week 1 starter.
Things to Watch: Pay attention to his footwork. Fullbacks have to be able to get to their mark quickly. While speed is obviously an important element of that, his feet will largely determine how much ground he can cover in the maybe one second he'll have to reach his target. False steps, as in a step he takes in any direction other than where the hole is supposed to open, will hurt him.
2. WR Toney Clemons
The seventh-round pick brings with him loads of promise, and in a unique situation with one marquee receiver sitting out and a 5WR position wide open, Clemons has the opportunity to make good on that potential.
Things to Watch: Separation is a critical component to playing wide receiver in the NFL. If Clemons would rather a veteran like Plaxico Burress not be given a look-see by the Steelers' brass, he'll have to show he's able to cut cleanly in and out of his breaks and get fast immediately after doing so to create space between himself and a defender.
3. QB Jerrod Johnson
Arm surgery cut down what was starting to be a very impressive collegiate career for Johnson. He's fighting to unseat long-standing back-up QB Charlie Batch. There's no way Johnson can match Batch's experience, particularly in helping starter Ben Roethlisberger prepare for games, but Johnson's youth and upside could send Batch packing.
Things to Watch: A team that already has a starting quarterback firmly entrenched means of the two back-ups, one must be game-ready (Byron Leftwich) and the other must be very smart. Much of that comes in breaking down film, but Johnson can show his knowledge of the game in execution. If he plays smart and manages his team well, another team looking to groom a young passer will take notice. Also, notice what kinds of throws the Steelers have him attempt in his likely extended action in the second half. Deep outs and long digs will show his arm strength. Notice how long the ball is in the air and how long it takes the defensive back to reach the receiver in comparison to the ball. Those are the two best ways to judge a quarterback's arm strength in a live game situation.
4. RB Baron Batch
He'll dress for his first live game as a pro tonight, and will likely see a few touches, at least. We've heard about his strength and willingness in pass protection, but how will he look in the open field? They're likely to get him the ball in space to see what kind of lateral quickness he has when playing live.
Things to Watch: If Batch shows he can catch the ball, smoothly turn upfield and make guys miss, at least to some extent, he's a lock for this roster. Watch him when the pass is on its way to him. Where are his eyes, and how are his hands positions? After he catches it, does he tuck it away, and how quickly is he able to square his shoulders? Note where his blockers are, is he following them back to the inside, or is he simply going to try to outrun defenders down the sideline?
5. OG Ramon Foster
While I think much of the hype coming out about Foster is at least a little bit related to wanting to motivate rookie David DeCastro, Foster is said to be looking very strong so far in camp. He'll get the start tonight at left guard, interestingly, ahead of Doug Legursky, who started a few games at left guard last year.
Things to Watch: As Coach Tomlin says, the standard is the standard. Foster hasn't looked like a particularly powerful pulling guard, so it will be interesting to see whether they have him do that. Chris Kemoeatu, last year's starting left guard for much of the year, had the ability to pull as well as any lineman in the league. One issue he had (cue the late hit penalties jokes) was body control. There were times last season he came out of his stance slowly, and overcompensated his acceleration to make up that time lost. He often missed his target because of that. Without being able to see starter Willie Colon at left guard, see how cleanly Foster can reach his target on balance, and the kind of hit he delivers.