The fourth preseason game of the year is probably the worst of all the preseason games. Rarely do you see starters for more than a series (if at all) and if you are the Steelers you play the Carolina Panthers every year in the final preseason game (every year since 2003) and let’s not kid ourselves, the Panthers haven’t been a good team outside of a year or two. It just isn’t a fun game to watch unless you really want to see what the depth is going to be like for the Steelers.
As much as this game might suck there is a lot to be taken from this game. Right now there are 80 guys on the roster and almost 27 of those players will not be on the roster on September 11th on the sideline in Baltimore. Roster spots will be won and lost tonight and careers could be over with one bad play. Don’t think so, then listen to Mike Tomlin earlier in the week when he said that special teams ace Stevenson Sylvester was on the outside looking in before preseason game four last year and played his way onto the roster. Things like that happen every year and most of the times we don’t hear about it. We casually watch the fourth preseason game and pray that no starters get hurt, but as we saw last year, those backups are more important than most think. I would be shocked if the Steelers didn’t have to use one of these guys during the season since no team ever goes through the 17 weeks fully healthy and never losing a guy to injury.
We already have word on some guys that are not going to play tonight and that list includes Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, James Harrison, Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu and possibly more. With most of the big named starters sitting that will give extended looks at some of the younger players, including some interior linemen.
Here are some things I am going to be looking at tonight:
1. Jon Dwyer is hopefully going to get a lot of carries. Rashard Mendenhall should get maybe one or two carries and then it will get turned over to Ike Redman, Mewelde Moore and Dwyer. John Clay should get a few carries also but he is a major long shot to make this team. Dwyer is in a weird position, he came into camp way out of shape and there were some that thought he might get the ax early on in camp. Then Barron Batch went down with a torn ACL and Dwyer dropped 20 pounds and got into more “football” shape and has run some plays as the first team fullback. A good showing tonight will solidify his spot on the team and might get him a hat on game day and even some playing time.
2. When Byron Leftwich went down it looked as if the Steelers were set on their QB rotation, but that might not be the case. Although Leftwich broke the upper part of his arm and was required to have surgery there is a question of whether or not to put him on IR and end his season. People often overlook backup QB’s, but they are a pretty important part of the team especially when you have a guy like Roethlisberger who is prone to take shots from defenders. Not putting him on IR sends a real message to Chuck Batch and Dennis Dixon that one of them isn’t going to be there through the entire season and sends the message that the team isn’t comfortable with either of them as the number two QB. A good performance from either, or both, quarterbacks would help the Steelers make a decision on this front but it is still a pretty tough call to make. Do you risk keeping a guy off IR and on the roster if he is going to miss half of the season, or more? In this aspect I hope the Steelers let Dixon drop back a bunch and continue to see what he can do. Sure, it’s against a bad Panthers team but can’t hurt to see him make the reads.
3. The defensive backfield battle is one of the two most important things I am going to be looking at tonight and it could go a long way in telling us how deep this Steelers team can go in the 2011 season. Taylor and Bryant McFadden will be out of the lineup again so the Steelers will turn to Cortez Allen and Crezdon Butler a lot tonight. Butler returning an interception for a touchdown last night and Allen has made some strides this season in camp and with as bad as the Steelers secondary has been in the recent past it would be nice to have one of these young guys step up and assert themselves into the starting lineup against the Ravens. Donovan Warren will get continued work and if you have been following my Steelers coverage in the preseason you know I am very high on this kid and I think he’s had a great camp. Curtis Brown is also in the mix tonight so it will be fun to watch the young guns battle it out for a possible spot on the field come the regular season.
4. The offensive line has been a huge game of musical chairs the entire preseason. When it’s not getting looks at guys in different positions (you know HCMT likes position flexibility) it’s players going down in the first series of the game and forcing other players to swap positions. Trai Essex will be out there tonight in his second game with the Steelers since being signed and he will be giving snaps to Ben Roethlisberger. Doug Legursky will get some play with the first team at right guard and there are rumors floating around that he could be the starter there come week one so he will be a guy to keep your eye on. Tony Hills has played some pretty good ball through the preseason after basically being a castoff in his first two years so that is really nice to see and hopefully he can keep that going against the Panthers and give the Steelers a nice option if someone were to go down (and he doesn’t earn a starting hat) in the regular season.
5. Emmanuel Sanders will (probably) get his first look on the field tonight after missing the first three preseason game continuing to nurse his feet that he had surgery on in the offseason. Sanders finished the 2010 season as the team’s number three receiver but there has been some competition this camp from his Young Money partner Antonio Brown. If Sanders plays that means he is 100% healthy so I want to see how he is moving and see if he is starting to get into football shape. The receiver depth has looked good even without Sanders in the preseason but if he can get to his 2010 form then this might be one of the best group of wide outs in the league.
Should be a fun game to watch tonight. What are you guys looking for? Leave it in the comments.