Coach Mike Tomlin explained the significance of this 2012 preseason finale to his players in direct terms. "This game presents a significant opportunity for guys to make a final statement in their charge to etch out a role for themselves within this group, or simply be a part of the group."
There were two who took advantage of the opportunity and seemingly etched significant roles for themselves with the regular season due to start in 10 days.
Jonathan Dwyer and Chris Rainey were in no real danger in terms of a spot on the 53-man roster, but during the Steelers' 17-16 win over the Carolina Panthers they showed they are capable of filling primary roles for the team this year.
In the case of Dwyer, he ended the preseason looking to be the team's best option as its starting running back for the opener.
Coming into the game with 84 yards on 15 carries (5.6 average) that included runs of 23 and 33 yards, Dwyer finished the half with 63 yards on 13 carries, which meant he ended the preseason with 28 carries for 147 yards, a 5.3 average.
"He toted the load tonight," said Coach Mike Tomlin about Dwyer. "He was the primary ball carrier, and that's kind of what we wanted to see. It's really a snapshot of his growth and development throughout this training camp and preseason. First things first, he showed up in good physical condition, and that's a prerequisite. He kind of took off from there. What he showed tonight is kind of a snapshot of what he's done for us here in the last month or so. It needs to continue. He's capable of it continuing."
It's long been known that Dwyer is an NFL-caliber runner of the football, but the questions about him came with regard to the other demands of the position. The game in Buffalo took care of a lot of that.
In the game against the Bills, in the final 1:46 of the first half Dwyer was on the same page as Ben Roethlisberger for a back shoulder throw that converted a third-and-9 with a 33-yard gain. Two plays later, Dwyer caught a dump-off pass from Roethlisberger and broke a tackle to get out of bounds to preserve the team's final timeout of the half. Then in the second half, Dwyer stepped up in pass protection to give Byron Leftwich the time to find Antonio Brown for a 39-yard touchdown.
With Dwyer showing this professional growth, and with the opener in what figures to be a very hostile environment, the best usage of the team's personnel might be to utilize Isaac Redman as the third-down back. The other option for this role in Denver likely would be Baron Batch, but he would be playing in his first NFL game, and it will be at a venue where hearing the snap count is going to be close to impossible. Redman is the best blocker among the backs, and his experience and poise would be a comfort to Roethlisberger on third downs.
Rainey came to the Steelers with a reputation for being the fastest player on every field on which he has played. That kind of speed is a valuable asset for a kick returner, but Rainey also came to the Steelers with a reputation for having trouble fielding punts.
Not only did Rainey field punts flawlessly in the preseason, but he also returned two for touchdowns against the Panthers within a five-minute span of the first quarter, only to have both of them called back because of holding penalties.
Yes, it's accurate to say that those two returns for touchdowns don't count, but you can't say that his 78-yard return followed by a 90-yard return didn't matter.
"I thought he did some nice things in terms of making unblocked guys miss," said Tomlin about Rainey. "I think that any reputable punt returner is capable of making those first one to two potential tacklers miss. He showed that tonight. Obviously, those didn't count so we don't look at them as touchdowns. It is what it is. Flags were thrown. But it is encouraging to see him make the first one to two tacklers miss. I think that's a sign of any credible NFL return man."
There are many ways to view the Steelers preseason finale, and one of them is that it served as a sign the team found itself a starting running back and a credible kick returner. That made it a success.