The Steelers kick off their pre-season Thursday night versus the Arizona Cardinals at Heinz Field. Below are 10 things to look for in the first game.
Return Game – The Steelers return game ranked 31st in punt return average and 29th in kickoff return average during the 2008 season and is a huge focus this season. Rookie Mike Wallace is a lock to make the roster as a number three or four wide receiver, but more importantly he can help instantly on the kick-off return. Rookie corner Joe Burnett will get some looks as a punt returner and will likely have to shine doing so to make the final 53 man roster. The same goes for CFL free agent Stefan Logan.
Offensive Line Depth – The starting offensive line is all but set, but questions remain at the depth of the position. Darnell Stapleton is already sidelined as he recovers from minor knee surgery, so Doug Legursky, rookie A.Q. Shipley and newly signed veteran Alex Stepanovich will get plenty of work on Thursday at center. Undrafted free agent Ramon Foster, rookie Kraig Urbik and second year tackle Tony Hills look to be battling for roster spots as well. Foster has been the most impressive so far and camp and may get looks at both the guard and tackle position.
Number 5 Receiver Spot – Dallas Baker has been impressing as of late in camp as he looks to battle veteran Shaun McDonald and undrafted free agent Tyler Grisham for a roster spot. Brandon Williams and Martin Nance have missed practice time with injuries and look to play for a practice squad spot. The Steelers will likely only carry 5 receivers on the roster so it looks to come down to Baker or McDonald.
Rashard Mendenhall Health – Look for second year running back Rashard Mendenhall to get a ton of first half work to see how he can handle the work load as he comes off of his 2008 shoulder injury. The Steelers will look to see if Mendenhall can run between the tackles and also hold onto the football after fumbling problems plagued him in the 2008 pre-season.
Short Yardage Guy – Rookie Isaac Redman had a good showing in camp goalline drills and looks to battle fellow rookie Frank Summers and veteran Carey Davis for roster spots. Davis contributes heavily on special teams, so the play of both Summers and Redman on special teams will also play a huge role.
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Linebacker Depth – Bruce Davis has been inconsistent thus far, but still can take a reserve linebacker spot. Several undrafted backers look to be playing for one spot on the roster.
Ziggy Hood & Keenan Lewis Progress – Both defensive end Ziggy Hood and cornerback Keenan Lewis have lived up to their draft status thus far in camp. Both will get a ton of playing time throughout the pre-season to get ready for needed depth on the roster. Strong performances by both during the pre-season could influence how the Steelers address some free agents headed into their final years. Look for both of their names to be called a bunch on Thursday night.
Does Charlie Batch Still Have It – After a slow start by the aging veteran quarterback, Charlie Batch has shown flashes this last week. Batch needs to show the Steelers made the right choice in letting 2008 backup Byron Leftwich walk. Dennis Dixon does not seem to be ready for the number two job, so a bad pre-season may force the team to look at other free agent quarterbacks just in case starter Ben Roethlisberger goes down.
Dan Sepulveda To The Moon – According to reports, Dan Sepulveda has been booming punts in camp. The Steelers sorely need him to stay healthy and help forget what happened with the punting game in 2008. He will be amped up for sure and should blast a few.
Health Of Starters – If you miss the first few possessions, you might miss the starters. Do not look for starters like Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward, Heath Miller, Willie Parker or Casey Hampton to play much if any. Head coach Mike Tomlin has been careful with the vets during camp and easing them into action. Do not be surprised if you do not see some veterans not even on the field. The first game is for the battling players, no need to take chances with any player that has a ding or not fully up to speed yet. It is a victory regardless of the score if no serious injuries are reported after the game to any of the key veterans.