Where the first two weeks of the NFL preseason are designed to bear a vague resemblance to actual professional football, the third game is more like a full-fledged dress rehearsal. Superstar players who’ve yet to ditch their street clothes will likely suit up for at least 3 or 4 series and starters who’ve become accustomed to playing 3 or 4 series may now play for an entire half. Offensive and defensive game plans may become a little bit less clandestine. Darling role players may even have the opportunity to log some meaningful snaps with the first-teamers. If you’re generally preseason-averse, now’s the time to clear an hour or two from your schedule and check it out. Here are four things I’ll be watching in Pittsburgh’s all-important third preseason game:
Can the defense recover from its less-than-ideal showing vs. Green Bay?
I typically don’t put much stock in the preseason (except for, you know, writing the Stock Report articles, which you totally should read!), but the Steelers allowing the Packers to score a million points last week...concerns me. Of course, any deficiencies on either side of the ball in the first two weeks of the preseason can always be partially attributed to a lack of personnel — which was the case against Green Bay, with five of the Steelers’ defensive starters not in the lineup — in addition to schematic creativity, so it'll be interesting to see if expanding the playbook or the return of Joe Haden, Cameron Heyward, and T.J. Watt will placate any immediate concerns.
The Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger hookup
I took a trip out to Latrobe a few weeks ago to watch the Steelers’ third-to-last training camp session — my favorite part of that session, by far, was watching Ben Roethlisberger throw passes to Antonio Brown during one-on-one drills with the cornerbacks. It’s a drill weighted heavily in favor of the offensive players, and that’s even without considering that no single defender in the NFL has yet demonstrated the ability to contain Antonio Brown.
What usually happens during this drill is this: the quarterback and receiver line up together on some arbitrary line of scrimmage, usually strategically near the left or right hash so as to be as close to the bleachers as possible, allowing for maximum grandstanding; the receiver runs a hastily-assembled but predetermined route on “hut”, his sole objective beating the opposing cornerback; the cornerback, meanwhile, is tasked with preventing the receiver from catching the pass. Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger are unstoppable in this drill. On the day I attended, after giving Artie Burns—who's normally Brown’s default adversary—his requisite skewering, Big Ben signaled that he wanted one final rep. Brown reluctantly agreed. What they needed now was a challenger. Terrell Edmunds, God bless his soul, accepted. Brown perked up almost instantly.
“Man, I ain’t never had a safety step to me before,” said Brown, almost incredulously.
The result was anti-climatic: Brown ran a go-route, gained maybe two full steps of separation, and caught an easy touchdown in stride. Brown was now laughing. (And his quad looked fine.)
So, yeah, I’m really, really looking forward to seeing Brown and Ben in an actual game, even if it's only a brief simulation.
OMG will the middle linebacker situation ever get any better
Vince Williams, who signed a four-year contract extension on Thursday, will be a Steeler for the remainder of his professional prime. This is exiting news. A capable run-stopper and expert pass-rusher, Vinny established himself as one of the NFL’s best secondary inside linebackers last season, notching a position-leading 8 sacks and 90 tackles. It remains to be seen, though, if Williams can be the alpha in Ryan Shazier’s absence. Shazier, much like Liam Neeson, had (has, I guess) a very particular set of skills that, frankly, Williams does not possess, which unfortunately kinda makes him a liability in coverage. Be that as it may, he still might be the best coverage linebacker on the Steelers. This is not great!
It’s looking increasingly likely that the Steelers will have to forge ahead with Williams, Jon Bostic, and the dreaded Tyler Matakevich as their primary inside linebackers. L.J. Fort is a nice player and Matthew Thomas has the kind of upside you’d expect a former five-star recruit to have, but it isn’t plausible to pencil either in as anything more than a depth player. Perhaps the Panthers will cut Luke Kuechly or Roquan Smith will demand a trade. One can only hope.
Against Tennessee, I’ll be looking to see if Keith Butler does anything different with Williams or Bostic, or perhaps uses someone like Edmunds as a a utility linebacker on third-down. At this point, they might as well just throw a bunch of crap at the wall and see what sticks.
Will James Washington play aside the starters?
And if so, how will he look catching passes from Roethlisberger instead of Mason Rudolph and Josh Dobbs? Washington was an exciting prospect even before his breakout game against Green Bay a week ago, so the fact that he balled out will make his potential integration into the first-team offense all the more compelling.