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5 things to watch as Steelers face Panthers in preseason finale

September 23, 2018
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Steelers quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Joshua Dobbs with offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner during practice Aug. 2018 at Saint Vincent College.

It was only a couple of years ago NFL commissioner Roger Goodell openly derided one of his league’s own products when he made the case that there were too many preseason games.

True, the context in which Goodell was speaking was in expending the regular season to 18 games, at the expense of two weeks of the preseason. But that doesn’t change the fact many fans view most preseason games as snoozefests.

Still, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 7:30 p.m. Thursday preseason finale against the Carolina Panthers at Heinz Field carries some storylines and intrigue -- if you’re willing to search for it.

Here are five things to watch as the Steelers formally wrap up their 86th preseason:

1. Dobbs’ last stand?

Josh Dobbs entered training camp in an unfavorable situation, to say the least, in regards to his chances to make the Steelers’ 53-man roster. In a league in which it is exceptionally rare for a team to carry more than three quarterbacks, Dobbs is in a room with a future Hall of Famer, a reliable and trusted backup and a third-round rookie draft pick. But Dobbs, a second-year player from Tennessee, has shown obvious improvement in practice and in games during this camp as opposed to last year as a rookie. It probably won’t be enough to save his spot on the active roster, but maybe he will convince the Steelers to keep him around on the practice squad. Better yet (for Dobbs), maybe another team will see enough to add him to their roster. The game is Dobbs’ final chance to make his case -- and it could be his final appearance in black and gold.

2. On the edge

After starters T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree and top backup Anthony Chickillo, there are no guarantees at outside linebacker. There is reason to be intrigued each by Keion Adams, Ola Adeniyi and Farrington Huguenin -- but each also has his proverbial warts. In all likelihood, one -- and only one -- of those three will make the 53-man roster. Each can make his case: Adams has the highest pedigree as the trio’s lone drafted player, Huguenin has three sacks in seven preseason games for the Steelers and Adeniyi has two sacks in three preseason games this month. Look for hints Saturday by way of who is used the most and when, and if they’re asked to do anything different.

3. Bursting bubbles

A veteran (Darrius Heyward-Bey), a mid-round rookie draft pick (Marcus Allen), an offseason free-agent signing (Nat Berhe) and a former Super Bowl champion (Stevan Ridley). Former standouts at Pitt (Quadree Henderson, Matt Galambos) and Penn State (Allen, Malik Golden, Parker Cothren). Players acquired by the Steelers 4½ years ago (Daniel McCullers) and 4½ weeks ago (Bucky Hodges).

What do they all have in common? Each is on the bubble for a 53-man roster spot. And this is their final on-field chance to impress. While many of the above are exempt from this fate one way or another, there’s probably a dozen or so young men who have been playing football at a high level their entire lives who will never put on a uniform for a game again after Thursday. Trust that they’ll play motivated.

4. Be special

The fates of these players might not be what they show on offense or defense, but perhaps a play they make (or mistake they avoid) on special teams. Astute fans concerned with the 51st, 52nd and 53rd roster spots know to keep an eye on the kickoffs and punts -- and not just for those who are kicking or returning balls during such situations. A hustle to make a tackle, a read to make the correct block, or a “splash” play that changes possession? Not much would earn the affection of coach Mike Tomlin more. Conversely, for a player who thinks he has the roster made, nothing would draw more ire from Tomlin than a missed assignment or mental error that leads to big play for the opponent.

5. Don’t get hurt

Don’t listen to the television announcer or that Twitter wiseacre who will inevitably say, “Tomlin’s No. 1 goal is just to get this game over with.” Make no mistake: Tomlin enjoys preseason games, and he appreciates the evaluation time he and his staff get to make some of the aforementioned decisions. But that doesn’t mean avoiding injury isn’t a top priority. And while most of the starters aren’t being exposed to any potential of that happening, Tomlin still doesn’t want his depth compromised 11 days before the regular season opens.

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