Thursday, August 29, 2013

Preseason Gameday: Carolina Panthers

Cameron Outdoor Stadium
TV: KDKA or pay to watch online
Radio: WDVE and other affiliates

The Steelers head into the last preseason game with essentially 40 of the 53 roster spots decided. There are about 27 guys competing for the last 13 roster spots. Even though the Steelers have yet to win this preseason, they have avoided suffering any significant injuries to their star players, which is a victory enough.

What To Watch For

1. No Injuries

Usually this is the 5th item on my "What to Watch For" list, but as the preseason winds down, avoiding significant injuries and having a healthy team heading into the regular season becomes even more important. So far, the Steelers have avoided losing any of their key players to injury. The starters won't play much (if at all) against the Panthers, which means we should be able to enter the Week 1 contest against Tennessee with a full complement of starters.

2. Special Teams

Special Teams play has been awful so far this preseason. There has been a fumbled punt, punts fielded inside the 10, a blocked punt, a blocked field goal and a kickoff return for a touchdown. That's not even mentioning special teams penalties. This is where the last few roster spots will be determined and it will be important to keep an eye on not only who makes the tackles but who makes back-breaking mistakes. Lane responsibility, particularly on kick coverage, will be a key for the Steelers after giving up the big return last week.

3. Second String O-line

The much-maligned Offensive Line depth enters the last preseason game with a roster spot or two up in the air. The Steelers typically only dress 7 linemen on gameday, so they could get away with carrying only 7 linemen on the active roster. In that case, John Malecki seems to have the inside track given his versatility on the inside. Guy Whimper was brought in to provide veteran depth on the line but he hasn't been able to block a pop-up on his computer, let alone a defensive lineman. This leaves undrafted free agents Chris Hubbard and Joe Long (who both looked much better against Kansas City) as candidates for the 8th roster spot, should the Steelers choose to keep more than 7 offensive linemen on their 53-man roster.

4. The evolution of Felix Jones

Last week, Felix Jones received a baptism by fire when he was thrown into game action with the Steelers less than a day after arriving via trade. This week, he has had more time to study the playbook and learn the offense. We should see Jones' role expand and he should get a lot of carries in this game. Landry Jones is scheduled to see the majority of the game at quarterbacck, and given the injuries in the backfield, Jones should see significant playing time as well, especially on 3rd down. Jones' roster spot is not guarantees, but he could play his way into the team with a stellar performance this week.

5. Linebackers

The Steelers could keep as many as 11 linebackers on their 53-man roster. As things sit right now, five men have their spots locked down. On the outside, LaMarr Woodley, Jarvis Jones and Jason Worlids are roster locks as well as starters Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons on the inside. Behind them, there is a cluster of rookie linebackers that have all jumped off the screen when given the opportunity. Stevenson Sylvester was already cut in the first round of releases, paving the way for the young linebackers to step up on the depth chart. Chris Carter has not developed the way the Steelers had hoped on the outside and Alan Baxter seems poised to surpass him. Kion Wilson and Marshall McFadden have seen significant time on special teams while rookie Vince Williams always seems to be around the ball. Brian Rolle and Terrence Garvin are no slouches either. Rolle has great range and Garvin has bounced baack and forth between outside and inside linebacker though he looks better on the inside. The Steelers could keep all of these guys, but given the amount of capable depth they have, it seems that some incredibly difficult decisions loom on the other side of the Carolina game.

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