On Saturday night, the Pittsburgh Steelers play host to the Indianapolis Colts in their third game of the preseason.
This is a particularly important game as far as the preseason goes, as it serves as the dress rehearsal for the regular season; the Steelers will look much more closer to how they will come Week 1, with numerous starters getting extended playing time.
With that in mind, here is a preview of what to watch for when the Steelers reveal just how ready they are for the regular season.
Ben Roethlisberger Debuts
The Steelers have been extremely cautious with starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger this summer. Though Steelers Depot’s Alex Kozora counted the signal-caller as throwing 156 passes during training camp—the second-most among Pittsburgh’s quarterbacks—Roethlisberger has also been somewhat taking it easy. When the MMQB’s Tim Rohan spent time with the team earlier in August, he noted that in “every other 11-on-11 drill, it seemed, Roethlisberger sat out.”
He also did not play in the team’s first two preseason games, either. But Roethlisberger is finally set to make his summertime debut on Saturday, which means the first chance to see what the veteran can do with the myriad passing-game weapons he has available.
This is about to be Roethlisberger’s 14th season in the league, so it’s not as though he needed the extra work. Nor is he expected to get much against the Colts—Rohan reported he should be on the field for no more than “five to six series.” But it is of note simply because this is the first look at a mostly full-strength Steelers offense in a live game situation this summer.
James Conner’s Usage
With starting Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell seemingly revealing he does not plan on ending his holdout until September 1, Pittsburgh will get another chance to take a closer look at its running back depth in Saturday’s game. And how that depth is used—and when—will likely determine who serves as Bell’s primary backup and who will serve as reserves moving forward.
The best bet is that rookie James Conner serves as the first-team back on Saturday, after making his preseason debut against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 2. In that contest, Conner rushed 20 times for 98 yards and had a three-yard reception, making him the team’s leader among running backs.
However, there are no guarantees the rookie will be the starter Saturday. For one, he is still very much learning the position and everything it entails—not just running but also receiving and pass-protecting—and thus the Steelers may choose someone like Fitzgerald Toussaint or Knile Davis to handle the No. 1 job against the Colts.
If that is the case, then don’t expect Conner to be the No. 2 back to open the regular season. If he does get the nod and is in there for the Steelers’ first offensive snaps, then he has already earned the right to be the No. 2 to Bell. It will also be interesting to see whether Conner gets more worked into the passing game than he was a last time out now Roethlisberger will play for the first time this summer.
The Wide Receiver Battle
The Steelers are approaching crunch time, needing soon to reduce their roster to 53 players. And nowhere may the decision-making process be more difficult than when it comes to the wide receiver position. Thus, Saturday’s meeting with the Colts will be a crucial one for the receivers who are not Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant or JuJu Smith-Schuster.
To a lesser extent, slot receiver Eli Rogers may find his job to be safe, especially as his main competition, Demarcus Ayers, has long been sidelined with an unknown injury and may not be able to play Saturday. Further, the other slot-capable player, Smith-Schuster, has been banged up numerous times this summer, suffering an ankle injury and a bone bruise.
However, this game will be the most important of the summer for the likes of Sammie Coates, Justin Hunter and Darrius Heyward-Bey. The latter, in particular, is in danger of losing his roster spot outright to Hunter if he cannot be more reliable when catching the football. Heyward-Bey saw only one passing target against the Falcons, and it went uncaught. Further, he caught only nine of the 35 passes thrown to him during training camp, per Kozora.
Of these and the rest of Pittsburgh’s receivers, only two roster spots are available. Whoever fails to break out—or whoever distinguishes himself in a negative way—will likely be on the Steelers’ list of cuts in early September.
A Defensive Rebound?
Despite holding the Falcons to 13 points in Week 2’s win and the defense continuing its streak of tackling well, Pittsburgh’s pass coverage left much to be desired.
Though the Steelers fielded all of their healthy top defenders, the Falcons put up 255 yards of passing offense, including 197 yards by third-string Atlanta quarterback Matt Simms. Last season’s Super Bowl finalists also earned 15 of their 20 first downs via the air, and eight receivers had at least one catch go 15 or more yards.
While injuries were to blame for some of these lapses—safety Mike Mitchell and inside linebacker Ryan Shazier were both sidelined with hamstring ailments—problems with communication were also a factor, according to linebacker Arthur Moats and Mitchell, per Teresa Varley of the team’s official site. With this being the closest the Steelers defense will get to a regular-season game until the 2017 season begins, it will be important to see whether those issues are starting to be resolved quickly.
Any return to the field by Mitchell or Shazier will help matters, but it should be noted that numerous players who struggled against the Falcons are also established first-teamers. One of those first-teamers was cornerback Ross Cockrell, and now his starting job may be in jeopardy because of the performance. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said on Thursday (via ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler) that Cockrell and Coty Sensabaugh are now in a head-to-head battle to start at outside cornerback along with Artie Burns.
Pittsburgh must not give up chunks of yards in the air to Indianapolis’ pass game or else what might have just been a hiccup against Atlanta may prove to be a real problem with defending the pass, much as it was a season ago. Perhaps Sensabaugh working with the first team will be a boon, but with Mitchell likely to remain sidelined, the struggles may continue.
Special Teams Impact
Special teams was a shining spot for the Steelers in their win over the Falcons, and the hope is that will carry over through Saturday against the Colts and into the regular season.
In Week 2, fullback and special teams ace Roosevelt Nix blocked an Atlanta kick before halftime. Running back Trey Williams had a punt return for 64 yards and a score. Punter Jordan Berry had seven of his eight punts land within the Falcons’ 20-yard line. And kicker Chris Boswell was perfect on his lone field-goal attempt and two extra points. All of these plays help lead Pittsburgh to victory. While it’s a lot to ask for such events to take place in every game they play, keeping up this type of momentum on special teams is crucial.
It will also be key to see how things play out in the return game. Only Williams handled punt returns against the Falcons. Rogers is also in the mix for the job and could get opportunities Saturday. Davis and Toussaint, meanwhile, are not just battling for a backup running back job but also that of kick returner; Davis returned two kickoffs in Week 2, while Toussaint returned one. It may come down to which one outperforms the other in the return game to determine who gets a roster spot this season.
Standing out on special teams is a path that leads to job security, and for players like Williams, Toussaint and Davis, that is a glaring truth.
Roster and Injury Updates
The Steelers released yet another depth chart on Tuesday (via Dave Bryan of Steelers Depot), with no changes from the previous one.
Listed under “not participating,” which serves as a guideline as to which players may not play Saturday are: quarterback Landry Jones (abdominal), receiver Demarcus Ayers (unknown), running back Le’Veon Bell (holdout) and center Maurkice Pouncey (leg), cornerback Cameron Sutton (hamstring), cornerback Senquez Golson (hamstring), safety Mike Mitchell (hamstring) and linebacker Keion Adams (shoulder).
However, according to PennLive.com’s Jacob Klinger, Sutton appears on track to play on Saturday. Pouncey also returned to practice on Wednesday, according to Mike Prisuta of the team’s website. Prisuta also noted that receiver Smith-Schuster, who had been dealing with a bone bruise, was a full participant in Wednesday’s session.
Also per Klinger, Wednesday’s practice was a full-go for linebacker Bud Dupree, who has been on and off the field while managing an ankle injury. Ayers did work in individual drills, and linebacker Ryan Shazier may be recovered enough from his hamstring injury to be able to play Saturday. Jones has started throwing passes, but his status for Saturday is still unknown. Mitchell, meanwhile, remains a question mark.
The bad news, though, is Adams’ rookie year may already be over, with Kozora reporting that his shoulder injury will require surgery and will likely see him placed on injured reserve. The Steelers also announced they waived injured cornerback Greg Ducre after he was hurt against the Falcons in Week 2.
Other roster moves include the signings of former Georgia Tech quarterback-turned-receiver Justin Thomas and cornerback Antonio Crawford. The Steelers also released running back Brandon Brown-Dukes. Rounding out their busy Wednesday was a trade, with the Steelers sending reserve center Lucas Crowley to Washington in return for cornerback Dashaun Phillips.