All in all, it's going to be a typical preseason finale for the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night at Heinz Field. The Carolina Panthers will be the opponent for the 12th straight summer. Some established players will be given the evening off so as to protect them for the start of the regular season. And there will be jobs won. Or, in some other cases, there will be jobs lost.
"I thought last year going into the Carolina preseason game, Derek Moye was on the outside looking in," said Coach Mike Tomlin, "but he did enough in that football game to turn the tide for himself. But if you look at it over the history of time, you can go back to 2009. Stefan Logan returns the first punt in that game 80 yards and earns a spot for himself. Sometimes you have to study the history of this game and this series specifically to provide information for men so they can know that they have a legitimate opportunity to help themselves. And some of the examples of that opportunity are sitting in the room with them."
In terms of the path most of the players on the bubble will have to use to make this roster, Tomlin was definitive.
"One of the things that's big in this game (against Carolina) is the kicking game," said Tomlin. "Many of the guys who are fighting to improve their position within the group and carve out roles for themselves at the 11th hour, we're not talking about defensive backs who are going to play defensive back, or wideouts who are going to play wideout. Usually we're talking about defensive backs who are going to be gunners or corners in the kicking game. A lot is written and said about how they perform offensively or defensively, but what they do on special teams is going to be a significant element in determining who sticks and who does not."
In that vein, there is another name to be added to the lore of the preseason finale. In 2008, an undrafted rookie linebacker named Patrick Bailey made three special teams tackles against the Panthers to win a spot on the 53-man roster. Bailey went on to be voted the Steelers' Rookie of the Year, and he ended up with his name on the Lombardi Trophy after the Steelers completed the 2008 season with a victory in Super Bowl XLIII.
"First and foremost, we want to have a good performance and do what's required to win the game regardless of who's on the field for us," said Tomlin. "I think it's important to finish on the upswing, and I know it'll be an exciting environment particularly for some of the guys who will be participating extensively at the end."
Some of the players not expected to see any action on Thursday night are Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Heyward, and Troy Polamalu, plus Sean Spence, Jason Worilds, and Lance Moore. The first three fell into Tomlin's category of "established guys we're looking to preserve," while the last three are among the group nursing "minor bumps and bruises."
Two players who fall into neither of those categories are Brett Keisel and Landry Jones.
Keisel, just re-signed before last week's game against the Eagles in Philadelphia, will be looking at his first action since the 2013 regular season finale against the Browns. He is someone who will use this preseason game to round into form for the regular season.
"I'm interested in taking him to the deep end of the pool to see if he can swim a little bit," said Tomlin with a smile. "We'll see how he does."
Jones is in a different category. The second-year pro from Oklahoma could start on Thursday night, and even if he doesn't he'll be the quarterback who plays the most for the Steelers. Jones goes into the final having completed 13-of-26 for 127 yards, with no touchdowns and one interception for a passer rating of 48.1.
"It's a big-time opportunity for him, and I look forward to him showing what he's capable of from that perspective," said Tomlin, who than added what he needed to see from Jones on Thursday night.
"Just consistent, above the line play, and that's about as straight of an arrow as I can fire."