Dunlap: 5 Things I’m Watching In First Steelers Preseason Game

There is some stuff to watch vs. Eagles

Colin Dunlap
August 08, 2018 - 3:26 pm

© Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers get the preseason kicked off at 7 p.m. on Thursday night in Philadelphia against the Eagles. There are a bunch of things to pay attention to. Here is a pared down list of five things that I’m going to keep an acute eye on … 

+ The Back End: So many have talked about how the Steelers will go with an umbrella, almost 3-3-5 stack look in the back end of the defense. I’m incredibly intrigued to see what this will look like in application. It’s no secret this will be done in an effort to match athletes with athletes, and the Steelers feel as if the strength of what they can do on defense is driven by the hybrid safety/linebacker types on their roster. The biggest question that I have in all of this --- and maybe we’ll get a small glimpse against the Eagles on Thursday night --- is this: How will those guys in the back come up and support the run? Will they be able to be physical enough at the scrimmage line? Can they shed blockers and find a ballcarrier? Can they win one-on-one combat battles and out-physical people? All of that will be answered in big form as the season progresses, but seeing this new look against the Eagles should be interesting. 

+ Old McDonald: Will tight end Jesse James take a back seat to Vance McDonald for good? That’s the thought here. It will be interesting to see if McDonald is deployed as the undeniable starter and James is relegated to a bit role. It feels like, since the time the Steelers acquired McDonald, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has talked him up every chance that he’s had. It isn’t that Jesse James has been bad --- and we all remember him getting screwed against New England --- but it just feels as if the time will be sooner rather than later to when McDonald is taking the vast majority of the snaps. 

+ Tackle Depth: Is there anyone behind the starting tackles that you trust? I don’t know, but it feels to me like if Alejandro Villanueva or Marcus Gilbert were injured, the Steelers might be in an enormous jam. Can any player show enough in the preseason --- and starting with this game against the Eagles --- that they can be trusted if they need to be called upon when the season starts? Chris Hubbard was a great backup but he went and got paid. Jerald Hawkins was primed to take over his role but he was injured and is done for the season and Bryce Harris was already told to hit the road when he couldn’t pass the run test. So right now, it’s Chukwuma Okorafor and Matt Feiler and then a bunch of guys named Harry who you have never heard of. On top of that, Feiler is more of a guy who is comfortable in the interior of the line. So, it’s with all of that that it would be a good idea to keep a keen eye on the backup at tackle --- or maybe come to the conclusion that the Steelers need to go outside and bring someone else in. 

+ The QB Reps: We know Big Ben isn’t playing against the Eagles. After that, we don’t know much. I know that I feel Josh Dobbs shouldn’t get much of a shot. It seems like we know his ceiling and his ceiling, at best, is in an emergency situation. With that, I’d have this preseason --- and beginning with this game --- turn into a Landry Jones v. Mason Rudolph battle with the winner becoming Ben’s primary backup. As is the way he normally goes about his business and words with rookies, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has downplayed just about everything Rudolph has done to this point in camp. Tomlin has said that Rudolph hasn’t done anything “in a stadium” yet. It will be interesting to see, even as it’s the preseason, if Rudolph can thrive in that first NFL stadium experience. 

+ James Conner: The running back knows the score. He knows that Le’Veon Bell won’t show up in camp until it is game week for the opening game against the Cleveland Browns. Conner knows he has a chance to show everyone what he can do this preseason and also gain the trust of his coaches. I’m particularly interested to see, starting against the Eagles, if Conner can handle all the duties that come when he’s not carrying the ball. Can he block and catch well enough to be a serviceable backup? For James Conner, he’d do well to treat every single snap of the preseason as if it was the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. We will see if that happens. 

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