For people in the football business, it goes without saying that the week of the final preseason game is a strange one. Every NFL team plays its preseason finale on a Thursday, which automatically provides everyone with extra time to heal and prepare for their regular season opener. But there also scores of players on all of those rosters who need to make an additional impression to get a job or keep their job in the NFL.
The Steelers' situation seems especially bizarre. After playing the league's final game of the third week of the preseason – Sunday night in Nashville vs. Tennessee – the team re-assembled at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex today. Tomorrow afternoon, they'll board an airplane for a trip to Charlotte for the preseason finale against the Carolina Panthers. Oh, and the regular season opens for them in Foxboro with a game against the defending champion Patriots on Sept. 8.
"We watched the game video with the team this morning and did some necessary evaluations and critiques and analysis in an effort to be better in what's going to be (many players') last opportunity to state a case for themselves in terms of being here and for roles within the group," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "There's a sense of urgency in the group from that standpoint, and there's also an urgency because it's a short week. We're being challenged with how we prepare."
As for the actual 60 minutes vs. the Panthers, Tomlin said Ben Roethlisberger won't play, and he added that the quarterback play will be divided among Mason Rudolph, Josh Dobbs, and Devlin Hodges in some as yet undetermined order. And its' very reasonable to assume most of the team's other veteran starters will be standing alongside Roethlisberger on the sideline.
That's because this game isn't for them, and it hasn't been for as long as the teams decided en masse that the third preseason game would serve as the dress rehearsal for the upcoming season. This fourth preseason game will be for about 30 guys who are fighting for a roster spot, and another 30 trying to carve out a role for themselves.
"We're excited about this and the opportunity it means for a lot of guys. We're talking openly about it (with them)," said Tomlin. "We talked openly about it this morning. Two young quarterbacks – Mason Rudolph and Josh Dobbs – really took advantage of this game 12 months ago and stated a case for the division of labor that became our group in 2018 at that position. That's just an example of the significance of the opportunity that is this game, and we're treating it as such in preparation."
And the method that many of the players can use to "state a case for themselves" in the preseason finale often might not be in the way fans or the media expect. Take rookie running back Benny Snell for example.
Because when Tomlin was asked what he needed to see from Snell on Thursday night, he said, "He's just got to continue the upward trajectory of what he's shown us to this point, and I'll be really specific: He made a kickoff return team tackle in the first preseason game, and he made a significant tackle on the punt return team in the second preseason game. Notice I'm talking about things other than the things you would naturally measure Benny Snell in regards to, because he's trying to get on the football team and carve out a role for himself. He'll probably cover a punt or a kickoff for us before he carries the football, and that's just the reality of it."
Tomlin also indicated that No. 1 pick Devin Bush would play against the Panthers, because even though he's a presumptive starter or at the very least will have a significant role starting with the season opener, he hasn't played enough NFL football.
"Forget the level of productivity," said Tomlin. "Their journeys, their careers are so much at the beginning stages that they need every opportunity they can get to prepare and take themselves through a preparation process and then get to the stadium and perform. They have a chance to get better. (Bush has) only done that twice. The more times they can do that, that's just growth and development for them."
And there was also an ominous message when Tomlin was asked what he had seen from his tight ends on the roster not named Vance McDonald.
"Not enough, and some of that has been due to the lack of availability," said Tomlin. "Time missed is critical in terms of opportunity, and a lot of those guys are getting the opportunity to lean in on it here at the end, so there is big-time urgency there."
The Steelers prepare for the preseason Week 4 matchup against the Carolina Panthers