Things to Watch: Pittsburgh Steelers Preseason Week 1
Heading into the start of another football season, the Steelers look poised to make a deep playoff run. While the off-season had a few issues, like the Le’Veon Bell contract situation, the draft and the start of training camp has brought renewed excitement. The 2018 NFL Draft provided a group of young players ready to make an early impact for the club. James Washington looks to solidify Big Ben’s weapons on the outside. Terrell Edmunds and Marcus Allen hope to carve out a role in the secondary. Edmunds has been impressive in camp, but newly acquired safety Morgan Burnett seems a lock to start in week one. While there are other names to mention, Mason Rudolph may be the biggest off-season acquisition so far. The quarterback out of Oklahoma State likely will not make an impact on the field in 2018 but has seemed to light a fire under Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben has come into camp much lighter and in better physical shape than he has in the recent past. Rudolph’s selection in the third round was not to the delight of Big Ben because he felt that Rudolph did not help the team “win now.”
Mason Rudolph and the other rookies will be on full display during Week 1 of the preseason. Game one comes against the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles on Thursday, August 7th.
Heading into this match-up, there are a few story-lines that should be monitored.
The first story-line is the integration of WR James Washington into the offense. Reports out of camp have been great for Washington. He has made some outstanding plays and has been a primary target, especially since Antonio Brown went down with a slight quad injury. While Big Ben will not play Week 1 of the preseason, it still gives Washington an opportunity to show that he deserves a spot as a starting receiver. After trading away Martavis Bryant during the draft, a starting spot is up for grabs. I expect the rookie Washington to fill the void Bryant left. At Oklahoma State, the rookie was a big play type receiver, who could run with anyone. Big Ben loves his deep shots, so I would expect Washington to fit right in.
James Washington will be the primary receiving target for a majority of the night. So based on his play he could begin to lock up his roster spot. I do not expect him to be on the bubble, although Justin Hunter, Eli Rogers, and company hope to ensure a roster spot as well. I expect Washington to have a breakout rookie year, much like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant have had in past years.
Another story-line is the team’s quarterback situation. Roethlisberger is going to be the starter, but beyond that, the depth chart is relatively unclear. The initial team depth chart has Landry Jones listed as the second string quarterback, followed by Josh Dobbs and Mason Rudolph. However, this does not seem to provide much insight into how the quarterback situation will play out heading into the regular season.
I find it hard to imagine that the Steelers would carry four quarterbacks on their active roster to start the season. Based on years past, traditionally only three make it to the regular season. That would foreshadow a release of one of the four current roster quarterbacks. Obviously, Roethlisberger is not going to be cut. He will be the starter Week 1 of the regular season, barring any injuries. I would also expect, at this point, rookie Mason Rudolph is a roster lock. After using the 76th selection in the draft to select him, releasing him before the season would be a relatively bad move. That would mean the final quarterback spot would come down to Landry Jones or Josh Dobbs. The preseason will allow these two players to battle for the final spot.
Landry Jones has been decent at best in the limited action in his first five seasons. Dobbs, on the other hand, has yet to see any real game action. Based on camp, Landry seems to have a slight edge on Dobbs because Jones has been working behind Ben throughout most of the camp drills. Coupled with his initial depth chart spot, it is Landry’s spot to lose on the roster. Although, this preseason would allow either of the two gain traction and earn a roster spot.
Starting ILB Battle
The initial depth chart also provides insight into the positional battle at inside linebacker. The unfortunate injury to Ryan Shazier has left a hole in the middle of the Steeler defense. While Shazier’s recovery has been remarkable, it seems unlikely that he will play anytime in the near future, if ever. His injury left the starting ILB job open to Vince Williams. Moving Williams over opened up a position for a multitude of other players. In 2017, players like Tyler Matakevich, L.J. Fort and William Gay received playing time based on different defensive packages. Off-season acquisition Jon Bostic was believed to assume the role vacated by Shazier. However, Matakevich appears to have a hold on the position at the moment. Matakevich is currently listed as the second starting inside linebacker. Although Bostic will have plenty of opportunities to gain ground during the preseason. In recent days Bostic has been seen lining up next to Williams in camp drills.
Both linebackers will see plenty of action Week 1. While the coaching staff tries to sort out their unfortunate linebacker situation, I expect the starting job to fall to one of these two players. Other have made some noise at camp, but the Steelers traditionally do not give starting jobs to first-year defensive players. This is another reason I am leaning on Matakevich winning the regular season starting job. Bostic is still familiarizing himself with the system, while Matakevich has had a couple more years in this defense. Either way, the start of the preseason will give a glimpse into the ILB battle and might give us some indication of where the coaching staff is currently leaning.
To further add to the inside linebacker situation, it is possible to see a defensive back earning time in that role. I point to last year when William Gay would assume a linebacker-type role in certain defensive packages. Normally in passing downs, the lack of a cover linebacker hindered the Steelers. Using a defensive back allowed the team to better match-up with offenses. During the draft and free agency, the team has made it clear they expect to do some of the same this year. Defensive backs Terrell Edmunds and Marcus Allen were drafted in the first and fifth rounds respectively. Both players are big bodied guys that could find themselves sliding down into the box quite often. Their speed and size combinations will be advantageous in passing situations, where they could cover confidently and still be able to make an important tackle up the middle.
Furthermore, in consecutive days, the team has introduced a seven defensive back lineup, which features no inside linebackers. The lineup has consisted of defensive backs including Burns, Haden, Hilton, Edmunds, Allen, Sutton and free agent acquisition Nat Berhe. Projected starting safeties Sean Davis (groin) and Morgan Burnett (hamstring) have been dealing with injuries. No matter the personnel used, the first preseason game might shed some light on how some of these defensive packages could come into play. Taking a linebacker or two off the field could lead to interesting match-ups and advantageous situations for the Steelers defense.
The preseason may seem like a waste to some, but it allows these players and teams to get up to speed for the regular season. It is also a time where certain players can earn a spot in the NFL. To see these story-lines begin to unfold, be sure to tune in to the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Philadelphia Eagles, Thursday, August 9th at 7:00 pm EST.
Scott Duda is a featured blogger for the SportsTalkLive. Find more SportsTalk Live on Twitter & Facebook