"Lately it occurs to me, What a long, strange trip it's been".
45 years after Richard Hunter so eloquently penned and Jerry Garcia so mystically sang those lyrics on the 1970 single entitled "Truckin", that part of the Grateful Dead classic provides the perfect soundtrack for the 2015 preseason of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
(Then again, so does their tune "High Time".)
The long, strange trip began in Canton, Ohio when Shaun Suisham crumbled to the crummy turf of Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium with a torn ACL, thus concluding his season a mere fraction into it.
The next stop was Jacksonville, where a beautiful first-drive, culminating in a gorgeous 44-yard Ben-to-10 (Martavis Bryant) hookup, morphed into a comedy of errors and a second loss.
The cosmic trip led the Steelers back home to Pittsburgh. It was in Heinz Field that a series of unfortunate events led to the most controversial and polarizing acquisition in recent, team history.
The Packer game started out well with the first-team offense seemingly starting to gel and the participation trophy-hating James Harrison echoing another Grateful Dead song, "A Touch of Grey", which led to a sack of Aaron Rodgers for a safety. But fortunes turned.
When Steelers center, Maurkice Pouncey's fibula was broken on a roll-up with Packers safety HaHa Clinton-Dix, Chris Hubbard assumed ball-snapping responsibilities. The lineman, who is new to the center position, soon allowed Green Bay defenders to maul the backup QB, Bruce Gradkowski. Gradkowski's subsequent, ring finger dislocation resulted in the Steelers luring the infamous Michael Vick out of retirement, to both the dismay and delight of Steeler fans everywhere.
Stephon Tuitt, also was lost for a few week in that game. Steeler Nation wondered aloud, "What else could go wrong?".
They found out soon enough, when it was learned that Martavis Bryant has an apparent affection for the cannabis and would be suspended for four games for enjoying high times in his free time. Add that to the Steelers having already been scheduled to miss RB LeVeon Bell for two games for last year's joyride with Mary Jane and visions of a Stairway to Seven got so blurry, that not even the Doobie Brothers Version 2.0's weed could clear it up.
The proverbial, Volkswagen bus rolled into Buffalo and the trippy exhibition season continued, as fan's thought they were hallucinating. The debuting Vick's first pass as a Steeler was a 62-yard hookup with Bryant, who teasingly looked like a man among boys against the Bills.
After signs of life and a 19-13 lead in the second quarter, the Steelers commenced to play dead, losing 43-19.
So with the final preseason tradition of a date with the Carolina Panthers approaches on Thursday, a final tune-up suddenly becomes a search for answers. Usually the highlighting of key matchups are easier to unearth, but with the State of the Union being hazy due to the unpredictable nature of the last-game, personnel choices, these were harder to forecast.
This much we do know...established starters will not be playing in this final warm-up game and Mike Tomlin reinforced to his squad a list of names who have escaped final cuts during the perennial, preseason close-out against Carolina.
With that known and several spots not determined, here are the possible 5 Key Matchups for the final exhibition game.
Key Matchup #1
WR Tyler Murphy and WR Shakim Phillips vs CB Bennie Benwikere or CB Carrington Byndom
Especially since Martavis Bryant's exile, either Murphy or Phillips could get the opportunity to stick around. While the practice squad is a possibility for either of the men, becoming the temporary fifth receiver represents a slight chance to stick for the remainder of 2015.
Mike Tomlin indicated that, on Thursday, Murphy would only play the receiver position and not at quarterback, like he did at Boston College. Murphy has a touchdown this preseason and has hauled-in 7 balls for 82 yards and an 11-7 average.
The inch-taller Phillips made a spectacular one-handed grab against Minnesota in the Hall of Fame game, but also suffered a huge drop against Jacksonville. His stats include a touchdown and 7 balls-caught for yards and a 16.9 average.
The defensive backs that these two are likely to square off against are Benwikere and Byndom. Neither have successfully defended a pass in the preseason games. They are, however, competing for spots in Charlotte and will offer stiff competition here.
Key Matchup #2
C B.J. Finney and OL Chris Hubbard vs RDT Dwan Edwards and LDT Colin Cole
Finney, whose touching YouTube reaction to getting an UFA invite garnered him national attention and sentiment, needs a good showing against Carolina. The addition of Doug Legursky may push the short-armed Finney to the Practice Squad. But the possibility of squeezing onto the final 53, still exists.
Hubbard's subpar audition at center against Green Bay may push him off of the roster entirely. Hubbard had never played the position before, but he hasn't really shined at all during exhibition play. Any chance Hubbard has to salvage his spot, will come from a spectacular display against the Panthers.
The most likely men for Finney and Hubbard to battle head-to-head with are Edwards and Cole.
Edwards, in 12 seasons in the league, has 18 1/2 sacks. While Cole, in 11 years, has collected 5.5 takedowns of opposing quarterbacks,.
Key Matchup #3
LDE Ethan Hemer vs LG Ricky Henry or LG Amini Solatolu
Hemer is another player battling hard to lock down a spot on the main roster. With Stephon Tuitt still nursing an ankle sprain, the 6'6" Wisconsin alum could use this final push to strengthen his case to stay. Hemer has 3 tackles and a sack in preseason action.
Solatolu has been a solid backup for four seasons in Carolina black and blue. Henry has only played sparingly in three years in the league. Both men are competing for jobs, but Henry needs to neutralize Hemer to keep his job.
Key Matchup #4
P Brad Wing vs P Jordan Berry
Usually this space is reserved for Steeler players vs a player on the opposing team. But this battle between Aussie punters will come to a climax against Carolina. In a back-and-forth battle in training camp, both men have brought the thunder from down under.
Wing has booted the ball on 11 occasions during preseason games, averaging 49.1 yards-per-punt and landing four inside the 20-yard line. His longest went for 62 yards. Last year, the incumbent averaged 43.7 ypp. That average ranked the LSU product at 29th out of 32 in the NFL.
His mate from Australia had himself a g'day last week against Buffalo and may have succeeded in getting an edge-up on Wing. Berry kicked balls that traveled yardage of 55, 66, 34 and 78 against Buffalo. For the 2015 exhibition campaign, the Eastern Kentucky alum has punted 14 times for an average of 49.9 ypp. Berry landed 5 inside-the-20 and his longest traveled a whopping 78 yards. Berry has won the net-yardage battle by the tune of 40.9 to 36.5.
With the position of punter being so crucial to field position, this is an interesting matchup that is going to go down under-to-the-wire.
Key Matchup #5
FS Gerod Holliman vs the Carolina Offense and Perception
The quality of receivers that the struggling Steeler defense is going to see in this final preseason game is not widely known, but Gerod Holiman's only chance to stick around Steel City is to have a breakout game, no matter the competition.
Holliman was looked upon as an enigma after his selection in the seventh round of the 2015 entry draft. Although he took home the Thorpe award due to his 14 interceptions in 2014, Holliman's questionable tackling ability rendered the former Louisville star as suspect. So far in the five exhibitions, Gerod has collected three tackles and hasn't displayed his penchant for the ball. Practice Squad inclusion may be more likely for Holliman's future, but his ball hawking skills need to be on display against Carolina if there is any chance for him to make the final cut.
Keep an eye out for these 5 Key matchups to see how they affect the choices that will be made for Saturday's cuts from 75 to a 53 man roster. Those decisions hopefully will transform the long, strange trip to a fantastic voyage, once the regular season kicks off next week in Foxborough.