Tonight, the Pittsburgh Steelers travel down to Charlotte for their annual preseason meeting with the Carolina Panthers. Why do we always play the Panthers, you may ask? Because Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is a card-carrying member of the FOD (Friends of Dan, as in Rooney). So while the Rooneys and the Richardsons sip Mint Juleps and discuss tee times up in the owners box, we get to see the Panthers at least once every year. Yippee.
To make a meaningless game even more meaningless, this is the fourth and final game of the preseason for the Black and Gold. The fourth game is the one where coaches are most careful. Anybody with so much as an ingrown toenail sits out because nobody wants to lose a player one short week away from the regular season. Last year, Mike Tomlin announced half the starting line-up wasn’t even going to be in uniform. As of this writing, Coach T hasn’t said much other than Landry Jones would be seeing the bulk of the playing time.
In other words, feel free to watch the Pittsburgh Pirates unless you’re a degenerate gambler who bet on this game or you really really have a thing for young Landry.
Jarvis Jones is not going to suit up. He was hurt last week with what the team is now calling a “deep bruise.” They’re keeping him out to be safe but he is expected to be good to go for the opener. Isaac Redman has also been ruled out as he continues to work his way back from what the team has been calling a stinger. He is also expected to be ready for Tennessee. All the other running backs (except Le’Veon Bell) are expected to give it a go.
With Baron Batch getting on with his life’s work, I’m not really sure what the coaches are looking to evaluate vis-a-vis the other running backs. We know LaRod Stephens-Howling is a good pass catching/third down type back. We know Jonathan Dwyer is a talented but maddeningly inconsistent performer. And we know Felix Jones is, well, Felix Jones. Other than the ignominy of Batch getting cut before Alvester Alexander (who I’d be shocked to see make the team), I have no idea what they need to learn that we don’t already know.
With cuts down to the final 53 man roster looming on Saturday evening, this will be the final chance for the inept guys on the backup offensive line and the young guys at linebacker to make their case. Assuming the Steelers keep seven or eight O-linemen, six spots are already taken (the five starters plus Kelvin Beachum). That leaves Guy Whimper, John Malecki and Chris Hubbard battling for at least one backup guard position.
Meanwhile, the Steelers are once again awash in promising young linebackers. Rookies Vince Williams and Alan Baxter have been impressing on the field while third year pros Kion Wilson and Chris Carter have experience albeit very limited. Williams, a 2013 6th round draft pick, is likely a lock given his dominating performance last week and status as a Kevin Colbert draftee. Carter was also a Colbert pick who started three games during Injury-Palooza last year but to say his performance was uninspiring is being kind. Again, I haven’t done the math on a 53 man roster but last year the team kept eight linebackers. Assuming they do the same this year, five spots are set (four starters + Jones). Assuming Williams stays for the reasons already mentioned, that leaves Carter, Baxter (a highly impressive undrafted rookie), and Wilson battling for one or two spots.
It will probably come down to who performs best on special teams. Danny Smith’s crew has been an absolute nightmare this preseason so anybody who stands out on coverage will probably have a leg up on their competition. While they worry about covering kicks and punts, the battle for who will kick those punts continues to rage between Brian Moorman and Drew Butler. As a cherry on top of this crap sammitch, I still don’t think they’ve decided on who is going to be returning kicks and punts. One assumes Stephens-Howling will field kicks but Jones is an accomplished return man, as well.
I can’t promise I’ll watch every second of this snoozefest but I will flip over in between innings of the Bucs game. And I’ll do a quick recap tomorrow in advance of the 53 man being announced on Saturday. Until then, #HereWeGo. And #LetsGoBucs.