The end of the preseason is here! This means that real, actual, NFL football is only a few weeks away. Due to the move to the 17-game schedule there is an extra week off between the end of the preseason and the start of the regular season this year. The Steelers will be resting the majority of their starters while they take on Carolina since it will be their fourth outing of the preseason. On the other side, since the Panthers are only playing their third preseason game, they will play some starters. The Steelers play one of the first games of the weekend, so they will also be able to scout the other teams that play on Saturday and Sunday. Final roster cuts down to 53 happen on Tuesday of next week and the expanded 16-man practice squads can be filled out on Wednesday afternoon. Even with a limited roster tonight, there are still a few things to watch for as the final roster spots will likely be determined on the field in Charlotte.
1. Dewayne Haskins vs the 1s
Haskins has been the favorite of Steelers Twitter ever since being signed to a reserve/futures deal in the spring. Haskins started training camp third on the depth chart behind Mason Rudolph. Haskins has clearly out-performed Rudolph throughout the preseason, but it should be noted that Rudolph has been playing against starting defenses while Haskins has played against second and third-string units. Now, with Tomlin’s decision to sit Rudolph in this game, Haskins will get his shot against a first team defense to show what he can do. Rudolph’s situation is interesting, because you would think his roster spot is secure as the backup with Tomlin not playing him. But on the other hand, Tomlin did not play Landry Jones in the final game a few years ago and Jones was cut, despite spending all of the preseason as the #2 on the depth chart (as Rudolph has this year). Couple that with trade rumors of teams (like Dallas) looking for backup quarterbacks, and this could become a very interesting situation if Haskins plays well tonight.
2. Special Teams Play
The last few roster spots always seem to come down to special teams. The Steelers trend for the end-of-the-roster guys on defense seems to be that they make an impact on special teams first and catapult that into more snaps on defense. So far, players like Jamir Jones and Mark Gilbert have shown a few flashes on coverage units as well as late in games on defense. Those are the building blocks for making the roster, and the players on the roster bubble will need to show up tonight. Pay attention to what players are making tackles on special teams. Additionally, we all knew there would be a punter battle between Pressley Harvin and Jordan Berry coming into camp. What we did not expect was a long snapper battle between Kam Canaday and Christian Kuntz. As we discussed on the SCB Podcast this week, the Steelers need to keep Harvin because there is no way he would make it through waivers after the preseason he has had. At long snapper, not only is there the on-field considerations for performance, but also salary is a factor. The Steelers signed Canaday to a 2-year, $1.975 million extension this summer. If Canaday was cut now, the Steelers would save about $250,000 this year and $1 million next year once his salary is replaced by Kuntz.
3. Slot Corner
The Steelers started training camp with Antoine Brooks as the slot corner. But Brooks suffered an injury and was waived this past week. He did pass through waivers and was placed on injured reserve. Arthur Maulet, who was signed in free agency to also help with the slot role was injured last week and his availability may be in question. So now it falls to rookie Tre Norwood, who has also seen action as the starting free safety in games Minkah has sat out. Norwood could fill the role, but the Steelers need to be careful not to fall into “Sean Davis territory” where they put too much information on a rookie’s plate all at once by trying to teach him multiple positions. In all likelihood, once the season starts the slot corner spot will be filled by Cam Sutton bumping inside and James Pierre coming in to play an outside corner role. Nevertheless, this is one of the weak spots on the Steelers defense and it would not be surprising to see them add a corner from another team after cuts are made.
Looking at you, Shakur Brown. Nothing can sink a player’s roster hopes faster than taking back-breaking penalties in key situations. Two years ago that was Kevin Rader’s situation where he had a promising training camp and looked to be able to challenge for a roster spot, but took two holding penalties that nullified solid running plays. Even in the preseason, the coaches keep an eye on which players are performing and which players are getting flagged. Taking one penalty is not bad, but the players have to show they can bounce back mentally. Making compounding mistakes on consecutive plays, like Shakur Brown did last week, is a quick way to the Practice Squad.
5. No Injuries
The most important thing in the preseason is to get through without suffering any devastating injuries. That seems to be the case so far with only Chase Claypool having a minor injury in camp and defensive backs Antoine Brooks and Arthur Maulet being injured in games. If the Steelers can get through the fourth preseason game in a relatively healthy fashion, they will be in excellent shape heading into Buffalo for Week 1. Given that the Steelers have one more preseason game than every other team except Dallas, they are wisely resting all of their key starters tonight. That means plenty of opportunities for the guys on the fringe of the roster to make an impression tonight. All things considered, let’s get through this one injury free and let the chips fall where they may for the final roster.