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Labriola on the loss to the Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – This year, it seemed to be quite straightforward. This year, it didn’t seem as though there could be any final game heroics to alter what we all seemed to be watching since things commenced at Saint Vincent College on July 25. The roster projections had been written, and all that was left was 60 minutes of hopefully nothing on the floor of Bank of America Stadium.

But what seemed to be straightforward before last night's kickoff of the preseason finale between the Steelers and the Carolina Panthers seemed less so by the time the team buses set off for the team’s charter flight back to Pittsburgh.

Not that this particular detail really mattered, but the Steelers lost to the Panthers, 25-19, to finish with a 3-1 record for this preseason, and it’s quite possible that the most notable thing about the game was the list of players from both teams who did not see action.

For the record, here is that list for the Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger, Chris Boswell, Donte Moncrief, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Sean Davis, Steven Nelson, Joe Haden, Mark Barron, Mike Hilton, James Conner, Terrell Edmunds, Jaylen Samuels, Rosie Nix, Bud Dupree, Maurkice Pouncey, Anthony Chickillo, Kam Canaday, David DeCastro, Matt Feiler, Ramon Foster, Al Villanueva, Javon Hargrave, Xavier Grimble, Vance McDonald, T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt, Cam Heyward, and Vince Williams. Ola Adeniyi is still recovering from knee surgery.

The sheer number of players standing on the sideline and spectating notwithstanding, one of the things that was finalized was the fight to be Ben Roethlisberger’s backup in 2019. Coach Mike Tomlin had resisted declaring a winner through the first three weeks of the season, but by halftime of last night’s game here it certainly appeared as though Mason Rudolph was the winner by TKO.

It should be noted that Rudolph won the job as opposed to it being a situation of him simply outlasting the competition. There may be spots on a team where it could be OK to give it to the player who wins by default, who didn’t so much win it as the other guy lost it. But Rudolph started fast and finished strong, and that’s what a team is seeking in a guy who’s one snap away from being the starting quarterback.

Rudolph arrived here with a 106.6 passer rating born of a team-high 65.6 completion percentage this preseason to go along with three touchdowns and one interception. Against the Panthers he was on the field for three possessions, which ended in a missed field goal, a made field goal, and a touchdown. Along the way he completed 7-of-11 for 125 yards, with one touchdown, no interceptions, and a rating of 132.8. He completed a 44-yard pass to Johnny Holton to set up the successful field goal and a 31-yard pass to Holton for the touchdown.

Whatever else happens at the quarterback position over the next several days, expect Rudolph to be in uniform as Roethlisberger's backup when the Steelers open their regular season on Sept. 8 in Foxboro.

But over the course of the little more than three hours that made up this finale, some other Steelers did their best to complicate things for Coach Mike Tomlin, General Manager Kevin Colbert and President Art Rooney II when they go about the task of turning 90 players into 53.

Let’s start with Tuzar Skipper, the undrafted rookie free agent from Toledo who plays outside linebacker, a position of significant importance to the Steelers defense and a position where starter Bud Dupree is working on a one-year contract that makes him capable of becoming an unrestricted free agent in seven months.

Skipper is fast and he has showed himself to be powerful, and he certainly has been productive these last four weeks. In four preseason games, Skipper had 16 tackles, five sacks, seven hits on the quarterback, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery. Outstanding production, but Skipper rolled up those numbers largely in the second halves of games when the field is populated by guys who soon could find themselves hoping to sign with the XFL. And by the way, Skipper didn’t look to be able to buy himself some time to develop on an NFL roster by helping out on special teams because he couldn’t even get himself onto special teams at a time when everybody and their brother was playing special teams.

He got no special teams snaps vs. Tampa Bay, three vs. Kansas City, and then none again against Tennessee. But just when it seemed as though a lack of special teams contributions might send Skipper to the waiver wire and then hopefully to the practice squad, he goes and leads the team with two special teams tackles against the Panthers. And if the situation was seen as an either/or competition for a roster spot with Ulysees Gilbert, another productive rookie linebacker who also had been largely invisible on special teams, Gilbert blocked a field goal here last night.

If the question is whether to keep six wide receivers or not, Holton sure stated a compelling case for himself as No. 6 in the game against the Panthers. In the recent past, the No. 6 receiver on the roster has been a significant contributor on special teams, and Holton seemed to have that going for him with three tackles in the preseason in his primary role as a gunner on the punt team.

But could Holton deliver anything as a receiver? That question was answered against the Panthers, when he caught a 44-yard pass from Rudolph on the field goal drive and a 31-yard touchdown pass from Rudolph at the end of the first half. So, if one plan for the roster was to add Skipper and go with five wide receivers because there was nobody as a No. 6 who could contribute both on offense and special teams, well, Holton gummed that up with his play against the Panthers.

A couple of others made their presence known with either big plays or with an overall contribution, but it’s likely both Jayrone Elliott and Christian Kuntz started the game too far back to make up the necessary ground to be one of the 53.

Elliott had stints with four different NFL teams and the AAF’s San Antonio Commanders before signing with the Steelers on Aug. 22 in response to Adeniyi’s knee surgery. Against the Panthers, Elliott flashed around the offensive tackle, knocked the ball out of Will Grier’s right hand for the sack-strip, and then he scooped the bouncing ball and returned it 88 yards for a touchdown.

Kuntz, who played high school football at Chartiers Valley and college football at Duquesne, was another signing late in the process as a hedge against injuries at outside linebacker, and his stat line from the preseason finale was a reflection of his versatility. Kuntz had three tackles and a sack on defense, he added two tackles on special teams, and he handled all of the snapping duties for punts and placement kicks. Maybe he doesn’t stick with the Steelers, but what he put on video should make him interesting to some team looking for a long-snapper who can do a little more than just that.

For the most part, the fourth preseason game is a tedious exercise, but last night it also turned into a showcase for some of the participants. In different ways, that’s what it did for a second-year quarterback trying to move a rung higher on the depth chart, for a couple of guys trying to make the weekend’s decisions more tricky for the Steelers, and for a couple of others who essentially were auditioning for the other 31 teams.

Viewed in that way, this fourth preseason game suddenly didn’t seem so meaningless.

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