It’s close. Just one preseason game remains before the start of the NFL’s regular season. Unlike previous years, the 2022 slate of exhibition games has been an exciting ride for Steelers fans, as Kenny Pickett has shined, and significantly closed the gap with presumed starter Mitch Trubisky.
Mike Tomlin has already made it clear that some position battles will be decided in this game, including quarterback, though not everyone seems to believe him on that particular issue.
So, without further ado, and armed with the knowledge that a majority of the Steelers’ starters will play approximately a half of football, allow me to offer this viewing guide, so you can train your brain to fixate on the biggest stories heading into this game.
Quarterback: As of this writing, Tomlin hasn’t named a starter for Week 1. He probably won’t do so until after the game. If you believe that this is already decided, and that Trubisky is the man, there’s still plenty to watch for. If Pickett plays well and Trubisky is merely average, or even slightly above average, the rookie’s timeline will be accelerated even more than it is already. And if he looks spectacular, who knows? There’s always the chance Tomlin throws caution to the wind and starts him. Oh, and Lions head coach Dan Campbell is looking for a backup quarterback. Mason Rudolph, anyone?
Inside Linebacker: On the surface this appears to be a competition between Devin Bush and Robert Spillane. Allow me to offer a different name very worth watching: Mark Robinson. The rookie from Mississippi has quietly but clearly started making fans of the Steelers’ coaching staff in recent weeks, and while he’s still raw in coverage, he’s shown good instincts, and hits like a dump truck when he’s going downhill. I’ll even make a bold prediction about him in this space. By the end of the year, he’ll be the player logging the most snaps alongside Myles Jack.
Offensive Line: The story here isn’t so much a particular player as it is the entire group. This is the last chance for them to create any optimism, or perhaps to dig themselves an even deeper hole. My wish list? Dan Moore Jr. regains even some of his rookie-year form, Kevin Dotson carries over his solid work from the Jaguars game, and James Daniels looks like the guy they signed. I’d love to tell you that any of these guys are being pushed by capable backups, but…they’re not.
Running Back: Najee Harris is the starter. Not sure if you’ve heard that one, but it’s true. The drama, of course, concerns who is going to back him up. Jaylen Warren seems like he’s quietly got the inside track, but who will get left out in the cold? Is Anthony McFarland safe? What precisely will Benny Snell’s special teams prowess do for him? Will any of this matter, seeing as Harris will likely get 375+ touches this season? Oh, also, Harris is playing in this game. He shouldn’t be, but he will. Probably for a single series. That’s one series too many.
Outside Linebacker: Normally, the players who get cut when a team drops from 85 to 80 players don’t get much attention. Genard Avery being jettisoned raised some eyebrows, though, because many keen observers thought he would make the final 53-man roster. Instead, Derrek Tuszka, Delontae Scott and Hamilcar Rashed will try to prove that they can handle the job of third outside linebacker. Do you feel good about any of those options? I sure don’t.
Injuries: According to Tomlin, all healthy players will be at the very least possibilities to play. That means Harris might see some action. To be clear, there’s no reason for this. Tomlin cited Harris’ youth and need to get some game reps as a reason to play him. Counterpoint: He had a league-leading 381 touches last season. I’m pretty sure he knows what game reps feel like. If Harris gets hurt, it will be on Tomlin for risking his health needlessly – even if only for a series – in a meaningless exhibition game. On the defensive side, if you see T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Tyson Alualu, Larry Ogunjobi and maybe even Myles Jack doing anything other than standing on the sidelines laughing, hold your breath.
Miscellaneous: Pressley Harvin III took heaps of criticism last year for his poor rookie performance, despite dealing with personal tragedy. He has obliterated the ball so far in training camp and the preseason, including a comically impressive free kick after Rudolph took a safety against the Jaguars. The Steelers want to win with defense, and Harvin being a weapon will be critical to that effort. Connor Heyward is opening eyes as a do-it-all kind of guy. Could he be so impressive that the Steelers – dare I even speak it – decide they don’t need Derek Watt? If Heyward can catch a few passes, throw a few blocks and play solid special teams, he’ll be providing far more bang for the buck than Watt ever has.