Five things to watch in Steelers preseason opener
The most recent time the Pittsburgh Steelers took the field for a game, they walked off it after one of the most disappointing losses of the Mike Tomlin era. The 45-42 divisional round playoff defeat at home to Jacksonville seems like ages ago. And it might as well be as compared to what the Steelers will put on the field Thursday for their 7 p.m. kickoff in Philadelphia against the Eagles.
Roughly half of the 90 players on the training camp roster weren’t with the team on the sidelines for that January postseason game -- and when you factor in the many veterans who will be held out (or are, in effect, holding out) Thursday, the Steelers you see at Lincoln Financial Field will bear little resemblance to the ones you got to know at the end of last season.
Still, that’s part of the fun. Football junkies will have plenty to get their fix Thursday. Here are five of the more noteworthy storylines to follow along with:
1. New looks on defense?
The Steelers revamped much of their secondary and did relatively little to find a replacement for Ryan Shazier at inside linebacker, fueling rumors all offseason they would use more exotic packages with safeties and cornerbacks in unconventional places. That’s played out, to a point, at Saint Vincent, with the Steelers often rolling out the “dollar” subpackage of seven defensive backs.
The preseason is no time for game-planning, and things usually stay rather vanilla. But in this case with the Steelers assimilating plenty of new personnel in their secondary and with new packages they’re working on, it’s entirely possible we will see some looks that haven’t been seen out of the Steelers before.
The preseason opener is annually the first time rookies are seen by the public at large -- and also the first time, of course, they participate in a professional football game. Yes, it’s preseason, but it’s certainly a step up from summer workouts and training camp practices.
Many eyes will be on first-rounder Terrell Edmunds, second-round pick James Washington and quarterback Mason Rudolph. But arguably the most important performance from a rookie might be what offensive tackle Chuks Okorafor shows, because odds are (as things stand now) he will start at least one game this season one way or another, which was not by the Steelers’ original design.
Also, watch for for undrafted rookies such as inside linebacker Matthew Thomas, receiver Damoun Patterson, returner Quadree Henderson and outside linebacker Ola Adeniyi. Each has stood out in practice settings. Late-round draft picks Jaylen Samuels, Marcus Allen and Joshua Frazier also are worth a look.
3. Running with rules changes
Between the revamped catch rule (wouldn’t it be something if Jesse James has a reception held up by review ... in the preseason?), the new helmet/targeting rule and the new guidelines governing kickoffs, there is no shortage for the potential of unfamiliar calls for fans to see for the first time.
The targeting rule already has been panned by many after its debut in the Hall of Fame game last week. The catch rule (no more “surviving the ground” verbiage) promises to be much more popular. What happens with kickoffs is the most unknown. Will returners benefit? Will the coverage teams? Will collisions cease to exist (which is part of the intention of the change)?
4. Tackling the issue
It’s seemingly a point of emphasis for the Steelers during every camp (indeed, for most defensive coaches at all levels for every team every year), and it is again in 2018: The Steelers have been striving to improve their tackling -- as difficult as that is to do when the pads have been on for only six practice sessions, and players are typically averse to doing anything that could hurt a teammate.
Thursday will be the first tangible evidence (or not) the Steelers could be better tacklers this season. That was a bugaboo, at times, in 2017.
5. Consistency from Conner
James Conner entered training camp as the de facto No. 1 running back for the first time -- and he’s established a wide chasm between himself and the other five running backs at Saint Vincent. Obviously, this is all under the prism of the absence of Le’Veon Bell, but Conner has helped allay fears the Steelers were ill-equipped to thrive without Bell (be it because of contract of injury).
It will even be mildly interesting to see how much Conner plays Thursday. He’s only a second-year player who has 14 NFL regular-season games and 32 carries to his name; guys like that typically would get extensive work in the preseason. But with Bell not guaranteed to show up in time for the regular-season opener and with at least the possibility that Conner will be a long-term No. 1 back for the Steelers, will Tomlin shield him from absorbing too many hits in a meaningless game?
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