When August enters the fray, there’s little that brings more pure joy than the return of NFL football.
At least, some version of it.
Pro football’s preseason is, at minimum, a semblance of the game we see by mid-September. Star players may only play a handful of snaps, but even watching the poetry of the game unfold on a real gridiron and on live television is a majestic sight.
That being said, it’s difficult to discern how much effort one, as a fan, should put into following the preseason. How realistic is it to watch every play of a game with no real consequences and reserves getting vast chunks of playing time?
Even as a Steelers and NFL die-hard, my interest in the preseason is admittedly a bit half-hearted, waiting eagerly instead for the actual, official kickoff date to arrive. I’ll try to catch as many snaps as possible to glean takeaways about sleepers or fringe roster performers, but I’m certainly not as glued or enchanted as I would be during regular season action.
This August, that’s fairly probable to change.
The 2022 preseason will be no ordinary preliminary period for the Steelers. In fact, it might be the franchise’s most exciting stretch of “meaningless” games in recent memory.
The obvious attraction is the team’s quarterback battle, which will assuredly draw flocks.
Given the level of interaction fans have had with tweets regarding each gunslinger’s performance in training camp, expect strong reactions based on every throw and every allotment of playing time. Some of that’s not without valid reason, though — Pittsburgh’s QB competition will largely be decided by what Mitch Trubisky, Kenny Pickett and Mason Rudolph put together against the Seahawks, Jaguars and Lions; tuning in should offer the answers supporters have been craving.
It’s more than just the men under center, however. Steelers fans will also get their first looks at potential future stars in the bonafide black and gold.
The foremost highlight is receiver George Pickens, who has seemingly made a transcendent play each practice session in Latrobe. The hype around Pickens is very much real (and arguably overboard, to the bemusement of some), and the preseason grants a chance to watch the primary stop of a potentially prolific career.
Joining the Steelers newcomer is fellow rookie receiver Calvin Austin III, whose burners will be activated against actual competition. Draft picks DeMarvin Leal, Connor Heyward and Mark Robinson also have an opportunity to amplify roles and leave little doubt about their roster spots.
Pittsburgh’s acquisitions spanned far wider than just its draft class, though. Free agent additions like Myles Jack, Larry Ogunjobi, Levi Wallace, James Daniels and Mason Cole could play in the initial three games to become acclimated; then again, it’s tough to predict how much each veteran will suit up, especially in the case of Ogunjobi, who suffered a foot injury in the playoffs.
The Steelers’ defensive scheme had fluctuated little through 2021, yet following the retirement of Keith Butler, promotion of Teryl Austin and hire of the notable Brian Flores, constancy will not prevail. The preseason could offer fans an early snapshot of how Austin and Flores plan to divide responsibilities and a petri dish for experimentation with pressures, linebacker usage and safety rotation.
In a similar vein, offensive coordinator Matt Canada presumably feels bolstered by returning for his second season in the role. Without Ben Roethlisberger, Canada should have the freedom to execute more play action and increased motions, which could feature prominently during August and early September.
A fundamental element of the preseason is determining starters, unit combinations and roster finalizations, all of which 2022 should provide.
Entering Saturday, the Steelers listed both Kevin Dotson and Kendrick Green as starters at left guard. That obviously cannot remain static, meaning the preseason will decide who gets the nod. While Cole was initially positioned at center and Daniels at right guard, new OL coach Pat Meyer very well might substitute the two to determine levels of comfort and continuity.
Moreover, Pittsburgh needs to establish its running backs that give Najee Harris reprieves. It’s likely that only two of Benny Snell Jr., Anthony McFarland Jr., Jaylen Warren, Mataeo Durant and Master Teague III make the ultimate 53, and hitting the turf for games is the true arbiter of such decisions.
Numerous others remain on the bubble. Might this be a final audition for cornerbacks Justin Layne and James Pierre? Will Miles Boykin or Anthony Miller be the sixth wideout? Does either Jace Sternberger or Kevin Rader make the team? Which defensive lineman (or linemen) will be thrust out of the rotation? Such storylines will certainly intensify intrigue, as expected from the preseason.
Beyond the on-field action, Saturday will present fans the first glimpse at the newly named Acrisure Stadium. Watching the inaugural preseason game without the iconic Heinz ketchup bottles may disorient some, but it allows the team and its audience to grow accustomed to its new abode.
The Steelers ended 2021 with multifaceted change on the horizon, and those shifts came in droves. From its starting quarterback to its general manager to its defensive coordinator to even its stadium nomenclature, the organization will start a nascent era on Saturday night — preseason or not, it’s hard not to tune in.