Saturday night's third preseason game against the Detroit Lions at the friendly confines of Heinz Field represents somewhat of a long awaited return to normalcy for the Pittsburgh Steelers players, coaches, and fans. There is a palpable excitement permeating through the organization and the fanbase. Veteran QB Ben Roethlisberger admitted to a full range of emotions during Thursday's post practice press conference.
Even preseason games have more meaning when the end of a legendary career is on the horizon. My beloved father used to love to point out a particular observation during many family outings, "We are making memories, aren't we"?! Looking back, he was absolutely right. In the end, memories are all you have left, and they are invaluable. Here's hoping for some great memories for all the Steelers faithful this season.
The third preseason game always has more urgency because it represents the only real dress rehearsal for the starters prior to the start of the regular season. Ben Roethlisberger and the other starters will probably only play a couple of series, depending on extenuating circumstances. There are certain things that the Steelers coaching staff will be focusing on during the first live in game action for many proven veterans, and some vital opportunities for all the fringe roster hopefuls. Here are a few points of interest.
Ben Roethlisberger and the starting offensive line
The first drive for Ben and the boys will most likely be a feeling out process, focusing on all the new personnel getting their feet wet so to speak. The ball will be coming out of Roethlisberger's hand quickly and on rhythm whenever possible, especially until the offensive line has a opportunity to prove their cohesiveness and ability to protect the QB. Expect a concerted effort to establish Najee Harris and the running game, with Roethlisberger taking snaps behind center. Once the starting unit gets settled in, look for a designed roll out or misdirection. There should be some play action mixed in, especially if the Steelers are able to establish the running game. I am not expecting all the bells and whistles that accompanies Matt Canada's offense; such as multiple formations, resets, and motions. After all it's only the preseason, but they may work in a little more creativity than the previous couple games.
Ray Ray McCloud, Rico Bussey Jr, and Cody White
The two hardest positions for any newcomer to make the final roster for the Steelers would definitely be wide receiver and edge, because the Steelers are incredibly effective at identifying and developing talent at those two positions. This year's depth chart is once again loaded at both, with too many talented performers caught in a numbers game. Barring a unexpected but not out of the realm of possibility trade or two, the Steelers are staring down the barrel at some very difficult decisions. First up, the receivers.
At first glance, it would appear that McCloud has a leg up on his competition. He brought a real spark to the Steelers as a kick returner last season, and appeared to be in position to build off that success this season. If we have learned anything from past experience, we should know there is never a comfort zone for fringe roster types. Especially with a franchise like the Steelers who specializes in finding hidden gems in unexpected places.
McCloud is definitely quicker than fast, with excellent short area elusiveness. He can be utilized in a variety of ways out of the slot or even the backfield on occasion, but he is limited to the slot due to his diminutive size, speed, and catch radius. His kick return ability is his best attribute by far.
Rico Bussey Jr. has enjoyed a strong training camp, and had a productive game against the Eagles. He has displayed excellent hands, and has a knack for getting open despite possessing rather pedestrian measurables. He has arguably had the most consistent camp of any of the receivers. He looks like a well rounded receiver with sneaky deep speed, but there is a elephant in the room so to speak. He has shown a real connection with Dwayne Haskins, but still needs to build a rapport with the other signal callers, especially Ben Roethlisberger.
Another young receiver to pay close attention to is Cody White, who just so happens to have multiple qualities that the Steelers love in their receivers. He has maybe the best hands in camp, easily snatching hands catches out of the air in traffic, plus the requisite toughness to complete the play. He has superior length and catch radius as a 6'3" wideout. He is still only 22 years old after leaving Michigan State early to enter the 2020 NFL Draft. He went undrafted after running a 4.66 forty at the Combine. He has been fighting an uphill battle ever since, but his reliable hands stand out from his competition for a roster spot.
Cassius Marsh, Jamir Jones, and Quincy Roche
Three standout edge performers, two possible roster spots. That's only if the Steelers go out of character and keep five outside linebackers. The Steelers usually keep four, with the top three getting the majority of the snaps. The fourth or fifth guys have to excel on special teams. The main reason I feel the Steelers may keep five this year is because of the expanded regular season, and they have two talented young men at a position of great need around the league. Marsh should survive the practice squad, the other two no way.
Marsh looks like a totally different player than he did at the close of last season, after being an emergency acquisition when Bud Dupree went down with injury. Now with a offseason and training camp under his belt, he has been making plays and generating pressure regularly. He looks like what he is, an experienced and reliable veteran performer. His roster spot looked pretty secure until the Steelers recently signed free agent Melvin Ingram.
Now the Steelers have a couple of young edge guys with tons of potential in Jones and Roche. Jones has good size and athleticism, coupled with a great motor. He has been making hustle plays all over the field, making the most of every opportunity he is given. Roche is a far more refined prospect than the still very raw Jones, possessing a impressive arsenal of pass rush moves and counters. He needs better technique and functional strength to improve as a run defender, but he can contribute immediately as a pass rush specialist.
I am excited and intrigued to see how Ben Roethlisberger will look in his first live game action orchestrating the new look offense. How effective the first team offensive line will be at opening holes for the running game and protecting their franchise QB. To see if the aforementioned receivers can continue to build on their excellent training camp performances, and in their order of usage in the game. The same thing holds true for the edge performers, with their special teams performances and usage going a long way towards bringing some clarity to that intense competition.
Enjoy the game and Go Steelers!