Sometimes, what's important in a preseason finale is who will be playing. Other times, what's important in a preseason finale is who won't be playing.
The Steelers will conclude their four-game preseason schedule at 7:30 p.m. on Friday in Charlotte against the Carolina Panthers, and as is his custom Coach Mike Tomlin used his news conference to provide some insight into how he plans to utilize his personnel in the upcoming preseason game.
The highlights of Tomlin's reveal: At quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph will not play, and Dwayne Haskins will start. And even though Tomlin typically treats the preseason as an opportunity for young guys to learn and develop, No. 1 pick Najee Harris won't play, either.
"We won't play a lot of our regulars," said Tomlin. "We'll move some of those guys out of the way to provide more snaps for others, and from what I understand Carolina's going to play their regulars quite a bit. So, there'll be no speculation (whether) our guys get an opportunity to pit their skills and preparedness and techniques against varsity (competition). So, it's an exciting opportunity.
"We're going to start Dwayne Haskins at quarterback, and we're excited about giving him an opportunity maybe to see some reps against Carolina's first group (on defense). It is another opportunity for our offensive line to gain cohesion. Many of those guys will play. We're excited about getting Benny Snell back because he's missed some time due to injury, and so he'll get an opportunity, particularly in the early stages of the game, to play some running back and do the things that feature runners do and prove his health and things of that nature. We'll be excited about that."
There has been some speculation about whether Tomlin would allow Haskins to get some preseason game action with the other Steelers regulars on offense, primarily as a way to gauge his progress since being signed following his release by the Washington Football Team. Through most of the offseason process, Tomlin has had his quarterbacks stacked this way: Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins, Joshua Dobbs, and those players have been utilized that way both in training camp drills and the first three preseason games.
In the preseason finale, though, that order is being switched up. Haskins will start, and then Dobbs will follow at quarterback. Tomlin wouldn't commit to each of those two getting to play a full half, but with Roethlisberger and Rudolph ruled out, those two will handle the position for the Steelers against the Panthers.
"I'm just interested in seeing him play more," said Tomlin about Haskins. "You know, this process is fair in that everybody gets an opportunity to show their skill-set, and we work hard to get to know them. He's new to us, and so the additional reps and exposure is good for him and good for us to get to know him."
The Steelers also may end up using this game against the Panthers to make some decisions on their specialists, as well as to get a first look at another candidate for the slot cornerback job.
At punter, the Steelers will keep either Jordan Berry or rookie Pressley Harvin III, and at long-snapper it's going to come down to fifth-year pro Kameron Canaday or first-year pro Christian Kuntz.
Harvin has averaged 46.6 yards on his five punts this preseason with three of those five inside the 20-yard line and a 45.8 net average. Berry has averaged 44.0 yards on his four punts this preseason, with two of those four inside the 20-yard line and a 42.3 net average. At long-snapper, there have been no issues either on punts or placement kicks.
"We're also excited about watching the culmination of the specialist battle," said Tomlin. "Our punters have done a great job as have our snappers. Those guys get an opportunity to put an exclamation point on their efforts on Friday night in Carolina. So those are just some of the many highlights, reasons why we're working. We've got a normal business day (Wednesday). We're gonna focus on situational football things and do the best we can to put (all who play) in position to perform at a level for them to be successful in terms of playing winning football but also putting their skills on display."
And this preseason finale also may provide the secondary's "Swiss Army knife" a chance to throw his hat into the ring to be the slot cornerback. Early in the training camp process, Tomlin said he figured at some point during the summer that rookie Tre Norwood would get a chance to slide down from safety to slot cornerback to give that position a go. But to this point in the preseason, most of the snaps there have gone to Antoine Brooks, Arthur Maulet, and Cam Sutton.
But in the cut-down to 80 players on Aug. 24, the Steelers slapped a waived/injured designation on Brooks, who was injured on Aug. 5 and hadn't practiced since, and Maulet also sustained an injury in the team's third preseason game, vs. Detroit on Aug. 21 at Heinz Field. Enter Norwood, a seventh-round pick from Oklahoma who was dubbed a "Swiss Army knife" by Tomlin on the day the Steelers made him a seventh-round pick for his versatility in college.
"On the defensive side, we're excited about maybe giving Tre Norwood some opportunities to play at nickel," said Tomlin. "He had focused exclusively on safety for the better part of this process, but he's been trained and been learning nickel the whole time, and so he'll probably get an opportunity to take some snaps there."
Before the preseason started, Tomlin had said his plan was to play Harris in each of the four preseason games, and so when he announced his starting running back would sit out Friday night's game, he was asked whether his plan to play Harris in all four games had changed.
"It has," said Tomlin. "He won't."