LATROBE – Mike Tomlin said he’s always been “a healthy-guys-play type of a guy” and that “the preseason is very necessary to develop regular-season readiness and cohesion and the only way to do that is to play.”
My hope is that Tomlin is only telling people what they want to hear after last year’s 0-4 preseason, because the preseason opener, which will be played Saturday at the New York Giants, is a game to develop as much cohesion as possible for a series, and then to take a look at the rest.
At least that’s how I’m approaching this preview. Here’s my annual list of new players to watch in the preseason opener, with jersey numbers in parenthesis to enhance your enjoyment of the game:
QUARTERBACK – Brendon Kay (8) is the rookie and he doesn’t have much of a chance against this stacked deck. But the deck lacks quality depth, no matter what the coaching staff thinks. At least that’s what Ben Roethlisberger’s backups have shown to this point. Time for Landry Jones (3) to show something.
RUNNING BACK – It won’t take long to identify lightning-quick Dri Archer (13) or king-sized newcomer LeGarrette Blount (27). The race for the practice squad, in my opinion, is between Tauren Poole (38), Miguel Maysonet (30) and Josh Harris (40), in that order. Jeannette’s Jordan Hall (49) is a tough blocker who returns kickoffs, so let’s keep him in the picture.
WIDE RECEIVER – Justin Brown (15) could catch 10 balls for 100 and still not live up to the media hype he’s received this past spring and summer. I just want to see him catch the tough third-down passes over the middle. Rookie Martavis Bryant (10) is a legit deep threat. Those two are roster locks. A potential sixth spot would have to be forged by either Derek Moye (14), who’s out of practice-squad eligibility, or Darrius Heyward-Bey (85), who’s injured and out of this game.
TIGHT END – Unless fullback Will Johnson is the No. 3 TE, the battle for that spot continues tonight for Eric Waters (80) and Rob Blanchflower (87) against vets David Paulson and Mike Palmer. I like Waters because he’s the better blocker.
OFFENSIVE LINE – Let’s see if fireplug Chris Elkins (61) from Beaver Falls can continue to show great leverage and hand placement, but also move his feet in stretch plays. Fifth-round pick Wesley Johnson (67) needs a year in the weight room but has shown some skill at three different positions. The strength will come. Chris Hubbard (74) is battling fellow guard Bryant Browning (79) for the ninth spot. Tomlin has never kept 10.
DEFENSIVE LINE – Time for Tuitt to do it. Eh, not quite yet. But Stephon Tuitt (91) will be the highest-drafted player in black and gold with Ryan Shazier out. Tuitt will start at left defensive end next to replacement NT Cam Thomas (96), a free agent from San Diego. Daniel McCullers (74) will be the giant in the middle with the reserves. He can be lazy or he can be great. He’ll have to decide. And undrafted free agent Josh Mauro (71) has been receiving more significant reps with the upper pass-downs units as camp has gone along.
LINEBACKERS – Sean Spence (51) will start for Shazier after two years of rehab. He can run downhill and blow people up, but can he run in coverage the way he used to? Arthur Moats (55) is a free-agent newcomer who can rush the passer. Howard Jones (34), or “HoJo,” is another priority free agent rookie who’s pressing for the last LB spot. He’s the pass-rusher from Shepherd University in West Virginia. Jordan Zumwalt (56) has only put two practices together but was already calling the plays for the third team as the buck at Thursday’s practice.
SECONDARY – Antwon Blake (41) seems to be a lock for the No. 4 CB job, but Brice McCain (25), the speedy free-agent acquisition from the Houston Texans, is making a strong run at camp past rookie Shaquille Richardson (31). At safety, Jordan Dangerfield (25) needs to impress on special teams to force Tomlin to keep six on the back end, but he’s never kept more than 10 total DBs.
PUNTER – With Adam Podlesh still out for family matters, Brad Wing (9) has an open path to reviving a once-promising career that he seemed to have thrown away by partying too much. Wing can crush the ball but can he do it under pressure?