By: Zach Metkler, GZ Sports Report Writer
After three weeks, the Steelers preseason comes down to one final game against the Carolina Panthers. With up and down showings against the Lions, Eagles, and Saints, the Steelers get the chance to face off against the defending NFC champions. What should you expect from this game?
The Steelers Stars Will Have the Night Off
This should surprise no one. After a fantastic showing against the Saints last week, the Steelers starters will have the night off, giving a chance to let the roster bubble players have one last shot and show why they deserve to be on the final 53-man roster. Mike Tomlin has been extremely conservative about playing his stars this preseason and with the exception of a few minor injuries, the Steelers have come away from this preseason relatively unscathed. The Panthers will likely bench most of their starters as well, namely last year’s NFL MVP Cam Newton. In other words, don’t pay much attention to the scoreboard tonight.
Position/Roster Battles to Watch
–Punt Returner: Eli Rogers Vs. Demarcus Ayers. Throughout the preseason, Eli Rogers has been the Steelers starting punt returner. However, his position is far from secure at this point as his punt returns have been a bit inconsistent. While Rogers has been the darling of the wide receivers through three games, Demarcus Ayers has a chance at knocking off Rogers as a punt returner. Ayers has shown flashes of potential on offense (not as much as Rogers, though). If Ayers can put together a solid night of punt returns, the Steelers could have a difficult decision on their hands with their 7th-round pick. Don’t get confused, though. Rogers has firmly secured his roster spot and has no chance of losing it.
–Nose Tackle/Defensive Tackle: Javon Hargrave Vs. Daniel McCullers. Last week, Javon Hargrave got the most snaps with the first-team between the two young defensive linemen. Daniel McCullers hasn’t had a terrible preseason but Hargrave’s potential as a run-stopper and pass-rusher is becoming increasingly hard to ignore. Hargrave needs one more solid showing tonight against the Panthers to solidify his spot as the starter.
–Running Back: Daryl Richardson Vs. Fitzgerald Toussaint. This is the position battle that not many people expected to happen. Daryl Richardson has been a pleasant surprise this preseason, consistently showing patience out of the backfield and great vision as a runner. While Fitzgerald Toussaint is the incumbent after a solid post-season showing last year, both players have shown that they deserve to be the #3 running back during the season and the back-up to DeAngelo Williams during Le’Veon Bell’s suspension. Both players will make the preliminary 53-man roster due to Bell’s suspension, but which one will stay on the roster after week 3? Tonight will go a long way in settling the depth chart.
–Inside Linebacker: Steven Johnson Vs. Tyler Matakevich Vs. L.J. Fort. These three linebackers have been battling it out all preseason and all three have performed well. Steven Johnson is the veteran of the group and has a solid shot of making the final 53-man roster due to his above average play this preseason. However, it is not that cut-and-dry. Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort have played well this preseason as well. Fort has shown flashes of development during the preseason and has spent much of his time playing next to Vince Williams as the #4 inside linebacker. While his play has been solid, it has been Matakevich that has made the biggest impact of the three linebackers. Matakevich has spent a lot of time with the starting special teams units and has also been a solid playmaker on defense when given the opportunity. He possesses a superior mind for the game and simply gets the game of football. That is hard to come by a lot of times in players, making Matakevich the likely last linebacker to make the final roster. Honestly, I would not be surprised to see both Fort and Matakevich make the final roster cuts. Fort and Matakevich are ahead of Johnson on almost every unit, which is telling at this point in the preseason.
–Cornerback: Donald Washington Vs. Al-Hajj Shabazz Vs. Montell Garner. William Gay, Ross Cockrell, Doran Grant, and Artie Burns are all locks to make the final 53-man roster. The real question is who will be the player to fill out the remaining depth at cornerback? All three corners have shown flashes of potential during the preseason but realistically, Al-Hajj Shabazz shows the most promise as a defensive back. His long frame and physicality are welcome additions to the secondary. Montell Garner likely has the biggest uphill battle to make the roster since his special teams snaps are limited at this point and he hasn’t made a huge impact on the defense as a nickel corner. Donald Washington also has a chance to stick but the odds aren’t in his favor. Shabazz has the best chance to make the roster but I would not be surprised to see the Steelers pick up a cornerback after the final roster cuts are made from other teams. If that happens, expect Shabazz and Garner to make the practice squad with Shabazz making a push for a spot on the 53-man roster next season.
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