The third preseason game on Saturday night against the Detroit Lions at friendly Heinz Field is a long-awaited return to normal for the players, coaches and fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers. A noticeable excitement permeates the organization and the fan base. Veteran QB Ben Roethlisberger admitted a number of emotions during the post-training press conference on Thursday.
Preseason games are also more important when the end of a legendary career is in sight. My beloved father always liked to point out a certain observation on many family outings: “We make memories, don’t we” ?! In retrospect, he was absolutely right. In the end, all that remains are memories and they are priceless. We hope for some great memories for all Steelers believers this season.
The third preseason game is becoming more and more urgent as it is the only real dress rehearsal for the starters before the start of the regular season. Ben Roethlisberger and the other starters will likely only play a few series depending on the extenuating circumstances. There are certain things that the Steelers coaching team will focus on during the first live in-game action for many seasoned veterans, and a few important occasions for any fringe hopefuls. Here are a few attractions.
Ben Roethlisberger and the start offensive
The first ride for Ben and the boys will most likely be a feeling process focused on getting all of the new staff wet feet, so to speak. Whenever possible, the ball will get out of Roethlisberger’s hand quickly and in rhythm, especially until the offensive has the opportunity to prove its cohesion and its ability to protect the QB. Expect a concerted effort to establish Najee Harris and the running game, with Roethlisberger snapping behind the center. Once the startup unit has settled in, look for a planned rollout or misdirection. Some game action should be mixed in, especially if the Steelers are able to get the game going. I don’t expect all the bells and whistles that go with Matt Canada’s offense; like multiple formations, resets and moves. After all, it’s just preseason, but they can work a little more creatively than the previous couple games.
Ray Ray McCloud, Rico Bussey Jr. and Cody White
The two most difficult positions for any newbie to reach the final Steelers lineup would definitely be Wide Receiver and Edge, as the Steelers are incredibly effective at identifying and developing talent in these two positions. This year’s depth table is loaded again with both of them, with too many talented actors caught in a numbers game. Aside from one unexpected but not out of the reach deal, the Steelers are staring at some very difficult decisions. First the recipients.
At first glance, McCloud seems to have a head start on its competition. He gave the Steelers a real spark as a kick-returner last season and seemed able to build that success this season. If we have learned anything from the past, we should know that there is never a comfort zone for fringe types. Especially with a franchise like the Steelers, which specializes in finding hidden gems in unexpected places.
McCloud is definitely faster than fast, with excellent volatility for short ranges. It can be used in a variety of ways outside of the slot, or occasionally even in the backfield, but it is limited to the slot due to its small size, speed, and catch radius. Its kick-return ability is by far its best trait.
Rico Bussey Jr. enjoyed a strong training camp and had a productive game against the Eagles. He’s shown excellent hands and has a knack for opening up, even though he has rather insignificant metrics. He probably had the most stable camp of all recipients. It looks like a well-rounded receiver with a sneaky low speed, but there is an elephant in the room, so to speak. He’s shown a real connection with Dwayne Haskins but has yet to develop a relationship with the other signal callers, particularly Ben Roethlisberger.
Another young receiver to watch out for is Cody White, who happens to have several qualities that the Steelers love about their receivers. He may have the best hands in camp, easy catching catches in traffic and the toughness needed to finish the game. He’s superior in length and catching radius as a 6’3 “wideout. He’s still only 22 years old after leaving Michigan State early to compete in the 2020 NFL Draft. He wasn’t drafted after serving in the Combine had run a 4.66 40. He has fought an uphill battle since then, but his reliable hands stand out from his competition for a squad spot.
Cassius Marsh, Jamir Jones and Quincy Roche
Three outstanding edge performers, two possible roster spots. That’s only the case if the Steelers lose their character and keep five outside linebackers. The Steelers usually keep four, with the first three getting the majority of the snaps. The fourth or fifth boys have to excel in special teams. The main reason I think the Steelers will keep five this year is because of the extended regular season and they have two talented young men in a position that is badly needed in the league. Marsh was supposed to survive the training party, the other two by no means.
Marsh looks like a very different player than he did at the end of last season after being an emergency call when Bud Dupree went down with an injury. Now with an offseason and a training camp under his belt, he makes regular moves and creates pressure. He looks like he is, a seasoned and reliable veteran. His ranks looked pretty secure until the Steelers recently signed free agent Melvin Ingram.
Now the Steelers in Jones and Roche have a few young Edge guys with a lot of potential. Jones is good size and athleticism coupled with a great engine. He played hectic all over the field and used every opportunity that presented itself to him. A far more sophisticated candidate than the still very raw Jones, Roche has an impressive arsenal of pass rush moves and counterattacks. He needs better technique and functional strength to improve as a running defender, but he can make an immediate contribution as a pass rush specialist.
I’m excited and intrigued to see what Ben Roethlisberger will look like in his first ever live game action orchestrating the new look attack. How effective the first team’s offensive line will be in opening holes for the game in progress and protecting their Franchise QB. To see if the above receivers can further build on their excellent training camp performances and their order of use in the game. The same goes for the edge performers, whose performance and use of their special teams go a long way in bringing some clarity to this intense competition.
Have fun playing and Go Steelers!