Preseason football games aren’t the most exciting affairs. For the casual fan, it’s a chance to see their favorite team back in action, but the quality of play typically drops off quickly as players are subbed out to give coaches a chance to evaluate as many guys as possible in 60 minutes.
The recent rules change that eliminated the first roster cut-down may have made the Steelers’ first pre-season matchup a bit more exciting, though, as there was less urgency to get fringe players on the field, knowing there will be an additional game with which to evaluate them.
With additional time to look at each player, the personnel decisions throughout the game may have given us a view of who the coaches are seriously evaluating for potential spots on the final 53-man roster at this point, and how some players will fit into the scheme.
Jacob Hagen played more than half the game.
Beginning with the first snap of the Giants’ second second-quarter drive, with 5:45 remaining in the half, until New York took a fourth-quarter snap with 4:00 remaining in the game, Hagen played every defensive snap for the Steelers. On most of those snaps, he played single-high safety — a role I said a few weeks ago he was uniquely suited for among the Steelers’ safeties. On a handful of those downs, he was joined in the deep secondary by Jordan Dangerfield or Terrish Webb, and for a few nickel plays, he was manned up against the slot receiver. It’s at least slightly telling that not a single pass was thrown his way.
Brian Allen played more snaps than any Steeler other than T.J. Watt.
Head Coach Mike Tomlin made at least one of his intentions very, very clear in this game: he wanted a good, long look at any and all healthy, drafted rookies. JuJu Smith-Schuster and Joshua Dobbs, the only healthy offensive players from the 2017 Draft, both started. It’s fair to assume Smith-Schuster would have played about as long as Dobbs did, had he not given himself a concussion. Defensively, Watt and Allen were the only healthy 2017 draftees, and were the only two players — offense or defense — to play more than 50 snaps. Allen, who has understandably struggled at times in training camp as a day-three draft pick, acquitted himself fairly well.
Allen entered the game at the same time as Hagen, and played every single defensive snap from that point on. There was some not-so-good: specifically, allowing too many free releases when playing press coverage, biting hard on a play fake on one of his early snaps, and allowing the receiver to get inside leverage when the scheme appeared to dictate differently.
But, there was some very good in there, too. He was consistently stride-for-stride with his receivers, and he had an absolutely picture-perfect, no-look pass breakup on the Giants’ next-to-last offensive snap of the game. Reading the receiver’s eyes and hands, Allen got his own hands up at just the right time to knock away a deep ball that was, for all intents and purposes, thrown right on the money by quarterback Davis Webb. Allen hadn’t even given up a full step to the receiver at that point, and was in perfect position to make a play.
Smith-Schuster’s role in the offense is becoming more —and less — clear.
Put another way, it looks like there may be no reason to use the young receiver in any one place. Of the seven snaps he played before getting hurt, he played three snaps as an outside receiver and four in the slot. His two touches were split, with his lone reception coming from the slot, while he ran a nice end-around from the outside. It was an exceedingly small sample size, to be sure, but he looked the part until he got his bell rung.
With the receivers who are pretty much locks to make the team — Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Eli Rogers and Smith-Schuster — there is little reason to lock any of them in to a specific role on the team. Each has skills that can make them valuable from any place on the field, and mixing and motioning can create mismatches of which such a diverse set of receivers can easily take advantage.
And, finally, a guess: RB Terrell Watson will get a long look against the Falcons.
Watson’s story is an interesting one, but that’s a topic for a different day. His march from Azusa Pacific University in California, to Pittsburgh, was a long and winding one, but for at least one evening, he was one of the most entertaining players to watch against the Giants.
He’s a one-cut runner — much like Le’Veon Bell was as a rookie, and like several other standout Steelers runners were — who has the size and mass to hit a small hole, and make it bigger. He’s got surprising speed, too. All of that added up to Watson leading the NCAA in rushing yards in 2014, which might be surprising considering he went undrafted in 2015. But he’s making the most of that opportunity now, and his 15-yard touchdown run (not to mention two other impressive carries) probably will end up getting him on the field sooner, and longer, as the pre-season progresses.