The Pittsburgh Steelers kickoff their preseason at home against the Seattle Seahawks. After three long weeks of training camp, there's plenty of excitement, and expectations surrounding this team.
And plenty to watch for.
Kenny Pickett's Debut
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has announced that Mitch Trubisky will start the Steelers' preseason opener. Much of the buzz will be surrounding Pickett’s first time donning the black and gold. It will be the first real live game action for what most believe will be the future of the Pittsburgh franchise.
Pickett had a much better second week of training camp, starting to look more comfortable in Matt Canada’s offense. He’s showcased good ball placement and his ability to work well outside of structure, albeit without live tackling.
While it likely won’t be perfect from the start, it’ll be important for Pickett to showcase good pocket awareness in his first game setting. In college, he had a bit of a habit of prematurely escaping out the back door, opting to scramble especially to his right. The NFL speed is different and it would be awesome to see him settle into a groove early.
There will assuredly be highs and lows but it would be nice to see Pickett push the ball down the field a bit more. Throughout training camp, he’s been a bit on the conservative side which is understandable. However, he’s accurate and capable of slinging it around past the sticks, especially in the 15-20 yard area where he excels.
McFarland and Warren’s Time to Shine
Pittsburgh has essentially nothing to gain by trotting Najee Harris onto the field against the Seahawks. He’ll likely see very minimal playing time. His incumbent backup, Benny Snell, unfortunately, was banged up towards the end of the week and it’s unclear if he’ll be able to go and if so, for how long. Which leaves Anthony McFarland and Jaylen Warren.
McFarland has been virtually unguardable out of the backfield throughout training camp. He’s put his blazing speed on display time and time again, whether it be on wheel routes or creating yards after the catch. We’ve seen this before though as McFarland had a strong 2021 camp prior to fizzling out in the preseason leading him to being inactive for most of the year.
Warren’s been the surprising darling of Latrobe thus far through two full weeks. The thing that has stuck out the most so far about Warren is his decisiveness when running the football. He’s a downhill runner that doesn’t do a ton of unnecessary dancing, displaying good vision in the process.
Sorting Out The Receiver Room
The Steelers receiver room is full of depth to the point where Tomlin and company are going to have some awfully difficult decisions on the horizon. Many of these guys have flashed throughout camp, seeing increased opportunities with Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool being sidelined for extended periods of time.
George Pickens and Calvin Austin have both looked the part of key cogs in the Steelers offense. There hasn’t been a corner on the Steelers roster capable of keeping Pickens in check. Austin’s done exactly what he did at Memphis by providing a bevy of splash plays. These two could certainly provide some fireworks on Saturday night. After those guys, the pecking order gets a bit murky.
Players such as Miles Boykin, Anthony Miller, Cody White and Steven Sims all seem to be fighting for what could be the final spot in the room. Special teams will play a part in that decision but it would be ideal for one of these guys to pull away from the group early on.
Kendrick Green’s Change of Scenery
It’s rarely an easy adjustment when transitioning to the pros. Kendrick Green’s rookie season didn’t go according to anyone’s plan as it was basically disastrous from start to finish. Green was put in a tough situation, starting from day one at a position that he had rarely been asked to play.
Entering his sophomore year, he’s slated to move back to his original position in college, working exclusively at guard. Usually, interior offensive linemen that are on the smaller side try to make it work at center, not vice versa.
However, Green never looked comfortable as the man in the middle. His hand placement is something to watch for on Saturday night as that was often the root of his problems during his 2021 campaign. Moving forward, Green seems to have a good shot at securing the teams top interior backup role as a depth piece provided he has a solid preseason.
DeMarvin Leal Moves Up a Weight Class
The former Texas A&M star packed on an additional 20 pounds or so after being selected in the 2022 NFL Draft. Leal, who played all over the defensive front for the Aggies, needed to add some strength in his lower body in particular in order to fit the prototypical 3-4 defensive end mold that the Steelers look for.
Despite playing behind a stacked defensive line group, Leal’s stood out for all of the right reasons. The question will be how explosive does he look with that additional weight on him.
With the Steelers signing Larry Ogunjobi, there isn’t as much pressure right away for Leal to come in immediately and contribute. However, it’s not every day that you see such a naturally gifted pass rusher coming out of college at this age. Even if it’s not until later in the season, he has the goods to carve out a role as a rookie.
Devin Bush vs. Robert Spillane
One of the most hotly contested positional battles on the entire roster involves Devin Bush and Robert Spillane. In his first year returning from an ACL injury, Bush’s play took a major step backwards as he struggled all season in basically every facet.
Now that he’s fully healthy, with an off-season of training to boot, Bush looks to pick up where he left off before getting injured. A good place to start would be creating some splash plays similar to those that he made during his rookie campaign back in 2019. However, he’s not being handed the job like some expected heading into the season.
Pittsburgh’s new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has alluded to the battle being close and competitive. Bush is in the driver's seat but Spillane certainly seems to be within striking distance of stealing the job away. Given how poorly Spillane played last preseason, there’s no doubt that he’s focused on a better showing this year.
James Pierre’s Seeking Redemption
The former undrafted free agent was a feel-good story out of camp last season, which lead him to becoming a significant contributor early on. In his first real action as a pro, Pierre had his fair share of struggles with most of those coming via the deep ball.
As a cornerback, you have to have a short memory and move on from rough patches swiftly. It appears as though Pierre has already done that, putting last season behind him and moving forward. He had a pair of really strong practices last week while filling in for both Levi Wallace and Cam Sutton.
Pierre’s a willing run support player who certainly has the frame to hold up on the boundary. If he can clean up some of the more technical aspects of his game, he could carve out a long playing career as a depth piece.
Don’t Forget About Special Teams
The final spots on the 53 man roster will be difficult to determine over the next several weeks. Special teams participation will certainly play a huge part in that process. It’s important to pay attention to not only who’s getting those opportunities early but also what players are capitalizing on their chances.
Some fringe roster players that could make their case via special teams are guys like Miles Boykin, James Pierre, Justin Layne. All of which have been key special teams contributors at points in the early parts of their careers thus far.
We’ll also need to find out if roster hopefuls such as Chris Steele, Jaylen Warren and Mark Robinson can prove themselves as worthy participants in this phase of the game. Saturday night is the first step into gathering that information.
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