CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Someday, soon if Commissioner Roger Goodell has his way, this fourth preseason game won't exist, but right now it still does, and Coach Mike Tomlin believes it has a purpose.
"It's a last opportunity for those to make a significant push to make a case for themselves," said Tomlin. "The third game is a dress rehearsal for those who are on the inside looking out. The fourth game is a last-shot for the guys on the outside looking in."
Many of the Steelers on the inside looking out were on the sideline doing a lot of nothing last night at Bank of America Stadium, and that group included Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Ramon Foster, Ryan Shazier, Mike Mitchell, Al Villanueva, Ben Roethlisberger, and Antonio Brown. Oh, and Joe Haden, too.
One of the things often said about preseason games is that the team with superior depth on its roster usually is victorious because the players on the lower levels of the depth charts are the ones who end up deciding the outcome of these games. The 2017 Steelers maybe have some decent depth on their roster, because after a comeback win over the Panthers, 17-14, they finished with a winning record (3-1) in the preseason for the first time since 2012.
Some of the people responsible for this outcome may not be around long enough to enjoy it, because the roster will be trimmed to 53 players by 4 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 2.
First-year running back Terrell Watson was among those who made a case for himself, because five days after leading the Steelers in yards from scrimmage with 82 – 40 yards rushing on eight carries and 42 yards receiving on four catches in a loss to the Colts – he carried 19 times for 89 yards while getting a chance to play with what passed for the starting offense last night. As this preseason unfolded, it seemed as though the battle for the No. 3 running back job was coming down to Knile Davis vs. Watson, and while Davis played with the first unit against the Colts in the third preseason game, Watson got his chance against the Panthers.
Also, the eighth and final spot on the roster that figures to be allocated to offensive linemen looked like a three-way fight going into the preseason finale, and each of the perceived combatants – Matt Feiler, Jerald Hawkins, and Brian Mihalik – was part of the starting offensive line, which helped Watson rush for those 89 yards on 19 carries.
This kind of thing was happening all over the lower levels of the depth chart here last night. At wide receiver, Marcus Tucker, Justin Hunter and Landry Jones combined for 11 catches for 200 yards, including Hunter's 58-yard touchdown; in the secondary, Malik Golden and Jacob Hagen had interceptions, and Mike Hilton had another sack; at linebacker Matt Galambos had two tackles on defense, an interception, and two tackles on special teams; nose tackle Dan McCullers seemed to awaken from a three-year slumber to be in on six tackles; and proving they understand that guys on the bottom of the depth chart have to contribute on special teams, Watson had a tackle in the kicking game to go along with his rushing total, and Tucker had one as well to go with his production as a receiver.
Game action photos from the Pittsburgh Steelers' Preseason Week 4 game against the Carolina Panthers
All of those named in the above paragraph arrived at Saint Vincent College on July 27 as guys on the outside looking in, and over the next 48 hours we'll learn whether they have managed to do enough to stick on the roster, or even the practice squad, because the Steelers fill their practice squad with guys they believe have the potential to become one of those on the inside looking out.
"There has to be something about them and their play and the overall trajectory of their play that makes them an exciting developmental candidate," said Tomlin of the kind of players the Steelers choose to add to their practice squad. "These guys aren't bag-holders for us. Our practice squad guys are here not only to help us prepare but to be ready when their number is called, and over the course of the last number of years there have been plenty of examples of those guys being ready when their numbers were called because of that mentality."
And even though he hasn't been in any real danger of being waived, rookie quarterback Josh Dobbs stated a case for himself here last night as well. Dobbs still is a player with serious enough mechanical flaws that playing him in a regular season game would be courting disaster, but because he didn't have a position coach at Tennessee it's somewhat understandable he arrived lacking in that area. But against the Panthers, Dobbs flashed some of the moxie and resourcefulness that quarterbacks need to be successful in the NFL, and taking your team 53 yards for the decisive touchdown in the final 47 seconds to engineer a comeback victory is the way rookies at that position earn the respect of their coaches and veteran teammates.
But while all of that was fun and occupied our time before the start of the regular season, that's over now because the regular season begins next week. The games start to count, and because they do, most of the guys mentioned here will fade into the background or they'll become footnotes in franchise history for being individuals who gave it their best shot but came up short.
Either way, they'll still have last night in Bank of America Stadium and the memory that they took advantage of the opportunity to make a case for themselves.