Despite recent announcements like the contract extension for Lawrence Timmons and the signing of veteran offensive lineman Trai Essex, it has been a quiet week of Steelers-related news. The reason is undoubtedly the team's return to their practice facilities on Pittsburgh's South Side, where the media is not allowed to give specific reports of players. After spending weeks reading about our stars' every move, we as fans are now information-starved and can do nothing but look forward to our next preseason game - the Pittsburgh Steelers' bout against the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday night.
By all accounts, the second preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles last week was a sweeping success. Young players such as Keenan Lewis and Curtis Brown flashed their potential, while the first-team defense showed that it hasn't slowed down; instead, it might have even picked up speed. Yet what we saw was only a meaningless preseason game, and none of the players shining against the Eagles can rest on their marbles.
The regular season starters traditionally play the majority of the third preseason game, but that doesn't mean that camp- and practice standouts can't show their worth. Instead, it presents an opportunity for all of us to guess who has recently impressed the coaches by closely watching player rotations. Find your weekly guide on Five Players to Watch in Saturday night's game against the Philadelphia Eagles after the jump.
5. Weslye Saunders, Tight End, #44, Rookie
I am talking of course about Weslye Saunders, a player from South Carolina who was thought to be one of the top tight ends in the 2010 NFL draft before lying to NCAA investigators and getting kicked off the South Carolina football team. The Steelers, who had brought him in for visits before the draft, decided to give him a chance in training camp, and the young tight end has not disappointed. In college, Saunders was known primarily for his receiving skills, yet he impressed early in camp with solid performances in the popular 'Backs on 'Backers' drill and flashed his potential in various practices. After being a no-show in the preseason opener against Washington, he bounced back with a solid performance against the Eagles when he caught a pass for a first down and was open in the end zone but overthrown by Dixon late in the game. The first roster cuts on Tuesday are fast approaching, and Saunders has to improve on his performance to secure the precious third tight end spot with the Steelers.
4. Ziggy Hood, Defensive End, #96, 3rd Year
3. Mike Wallace, Wide Receiver, #17, 3rd Year
Mike Wallace came out of the lockout and into training camp with a bang. After recording over 1,250 yards receiving and leading the AFC in yards per reception at 21.0 in only his second year, the former third round pick from Mississippi came to Latrobe not being shy about his lofty 2011 goals. He boldly told reporters that he wants to reach 2,000 receiving yards this season, a mark that would break the NFL record in that category set by Jerry Rice by over 100 yards.
Wallace has quickly ascended into the elite ranks of NFL wide receivers, and evidently believes that he can take his game to the next level while being mentioned in one breath with the all-time greats. This comes besides the fact that Tomlin famously called out Wallace last year as being a 'one-trick pony' for only being effective on deep routes, a statement that the young wide receiver rigorously rejects. But much like Hood, Wallace has yet to flash the skills that made him a feared player and essential member of the 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers this preseason. He has only caught one pass in two games so far, and seemingly was unable to get open against the likes of Nnamdi Asomugha and DeAngelo Hall. Both are pro-bowl corners, but nonetheless players that Wallace has to beat if he wants to reach his ambitious goals. He has little to prove and will go into the season as the clear number one receiver; but it would be comforting to see him have a big game in extended playing time against Atlanta.
2. Marcus Gilbert, Offensive Tackle, #65, Rookie
Before April's draft, the 6 foot 5, 330 pound Gilbert was considered a right tackle or guard prospect. The Steelers however thought differently when they drafted him with the 63rd pick of the second round, preparing him to play left tackle ever since. After an injury and some rocky performances to start training camp, he started coming into his own in practices and was thrown into the cold against the Eagles when Scott went down with a knee injury. Gilbert made some nice plays blocking, but also allowed a quarterback pressure and conceded a penalty. Of course, his night was also cut short by an injury, which fortunately proved minor. The Steelers have precious little depth at left tackle, especially if Tony Hills wins the starting right guard job. If Scott goes down in the regular season or his injury proves more significant than originally thought, Gilbert will have to be ready to step in and against Atlanta, he has the chance to prove his worth along the first team offensive line.