Way back in the 1970s, the Steelers’ final preseason game was a lot more like the regular season than it is today. The idea back then was that the last exhibition game was the final tune-up for your team to round itself into fighting shape for the grueling season ahead. Typically in those days, the starting QB would play a good portion of the game, and sometimes even more. For that reason, the starting offensive line also would play a substantial portion of the game — enough to keep the starting QB in one piece and also to make sure they had their intricate-but-brutal choreography well honed for Opening Day.
On August 30, 1975, the Black-and-gold played the New York Giants in Princeton University’s Palmer Stadium, where Rooney U. was trounced 24‐7 before a relatively sparse crowd of 38,185. Interviewed afterwards, Chuck Noll said, “The Giants outplayed us 100 per cent. We were not good by any stretch of the imagination. But they kicked us pure and simple. We had no excuses. We had our veterans in there most of the way.”
By itself, that last sentence from Emperor Chas seems incredible by today’s standards. Add to this the fact that Terry Bradshaw not only played the entire game in Princeton, N.J., that day, but the Blonde Bomber also had 53 yards rushing! The fact that this occurred only seven months after the Steelers’ first Super Bowl victory over the Minnesota Vikings speaks to the enormity of difference in the way today’s NFL teams prepare for Opening Day. Needless to say, during the 70s, not reporting for duty with your team until the week before Opening Day kickoff was a sure way for any player to earn a one-way ticket to Palookaville.
But times have changed and Thursday night’s final preseason tilt versus the Carolina Panthers was a good example of why NFL teams don’t want their starters on the field any longer than absolutely necessary during the preseason. Not only is this a safer course in terms of potential injuries to key players, but it also provides a better opportunity to evaluate young talent.
In naming Joshua Dobbs as the starting QB in advance of the kickoff at Heinz Field, Mike Tomlin appeared to have placed the youngster squarely between a rock and a hard place. Dobbs was looking at one last opportunity to claim a spot on the Steelers’ 53-man roster. But unlike the 1975 scenario, he wouldn’t be working with the first-team OL. Instead, he’d be guarded by a group of inexperienced backups also hoping to avoid the Saturday Turk.
Despite the deck seemingly stacked against him, Dobbs beat the odds by doing everything that anyone could ever expect of a young QB. He was 8/12 for 151 yards in less than a half of football, marching the offense down the field on three impressive scoring drives to give the Steelers an early 17-7 advantage on their way to an impressive 39-24 victory. If not for a would-be scoring pass which was dropped by Tevin Jones, forcing the Steelers to kick a FG, Dobbs would’ve had three TD drives in the first half. What’s more, Dobbs continued to showcase his impressive capabilities in escaping the pass rush and morphing into a speedy, elusive runner or a dangerous, mobile passer.
Mason Rudolph also played very well under similar circumstances, completing five of nine passes for 102 yards and two TDs. But Dobbs’ first-half performance left no doubt — at this early stage of his career — that he’s at least on a par with Rudolph. His outstanding effort also substantially complicates the task of Mike Tomlin’s coaching staff in determining who will claim the No. 3 quarterback spot. In view of strong showings by both Dobbs and Rudolph during the preseason, it’s not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that Landry Jones might at some point find himself as the odd man out. While this seems highly unlikely in 2018, we’ll know the answer soon enough.
But if it turns out Dobbs’ performance against the Panthers still wasn’t enough to move him off of the bubble — and should he escape to another team — the Steelers might face another conundrum in the very real possibility that Dobbs could someday blossom into a winning NFL quarterback, thus causing fans to second-guess the Steelers’ brain trust into eternity.
At the same time, though, we can’t discount Rudolph’s abilities. The intriguing thing about Rudolph is the eerie similarity between his tendencies and those of Ben Roethlisberger. On Thursday night, and especially on his two TD passes, Rudolph showed the ability to make accurate throws into tight coverage windows, as well as the ability to buy himself extra time to find receivers by moving around in the pocket — each of these traits being a hallmark of Big Ben. And it’s exciting to consider that Rudolph and Dobbs would have had still better outings if they’d been throwing the ball to the Steelers’ starting receivers, because there were too many dropped passes.
All in all, a very impressive conclusion to the preseason by two young QBs who seem well-equipped and determined to make their marks in the NFL. In the wake of this spirited competition for a key roster spot, it almost seems a shame that Pittsburgh won’t be able to carry four QBs. And somewhere today, Terry Bradshaw is scratching his head, thinking about all of the abuse he suffered during those many bygone preseasons.
- Ola Adeniyi’s strip sack of Panthers’ QB Garrett Gilbert late in the second quarter got the ball back for Pittsburgh and set the stage for Rudolph to enter the game and run the 2-minute offense on a TD drive extending the Steelers’ lead to 25-7 at halftime. Not to be outdone, Matthew Thomas got his own strip-sack of Panthers’ QB Kyle Allen in the fourth quarter, plucking the loose ball out of mid-air and returning it all the way back to the Panthers’ 1-yard line.
- Matt Wile continued booming his punts, with three boots for a total of 150 yards and a 50-yard average.
- Matthew Thomas led the defense in tackles with 11 (6 solo); Marcus Allen had 10 tackles (6 solo) and Brian Allen had 9 tackles (5 solo).
- Malik Golden’s gruesome-looking knee injury was a sobering reminder that a player’s season — or career — can be over in the wink of an eye.