The Steelers take on the Falcons Saturday night at Heinz Field in their third preseason game of the 2011 season. The Steelers rebounded last week against the Eagles after a dismal performance against the Redskins and will look to build on the showing they made last. This will be the last game for 10 roster hopefuls as the first wave of cuts will be made Sunday or Monday as they cut down to 80 players. A few questions still linger as far as the 53 man roster goes. As I do every week, here are my 7 things to watch for tonight.
Rookie Blind Side – Rookie left tackle Marcus Gilbert will likely get the start Saturday night as it looks like Jonathan Scott will sit out with his knee injury suffered last week against the Eagles. Gilbert will get a good test as he will likely face Falcons defensive ends John Abraham and Ray Edwards at some point during the game. Abraham ranked fifth in the NFL last season with 13 sacks and was named All-Pro for the third time in 2010. Gilbert has played above the line in his first two games and Saturday night will be the ultimate test to see where he is at in his abilities to protect the blind side of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger against much stiffer competition.
Hills For The Win – Tony Hills got the start at right guard against the Eagles last week, but was forced to move over to left tackle after both Scott and Gilbert exited the game early against the Eagles. His play at left tackle was mediocre at best in relief and it is pretty much guard or bust for him at this point. He is certain to get a much longer look Saturday night at right guard again and will likely win the starting spot with a strong performance. He must concentrate on staying low in all phases of his blocking as he tends to get man-handled when he allows defenders to get their hands inside on him. In his run blocking, he must be able to clear his target when asked to pull left and he must hold his blocks well on plays that requires him to get to the second level.
Trim Trai & Kamikaze Kemo – A few more offensive linemen will have my attention as Trai Essex was re-signed this past week and Chris Kemoeatu is finally ready to play. Essex could follow Gilbert or Colon into the game at one of the tackle spots and he could even see time at right guard when and if Hills exits. Essex has reportedly lost two babies worth of weight over the last several weeks and this will be his first preseason action he has had. His position flexibility could make him an integral part of the Steelers offensive line at some point this season and I will be looking to see if he has been able to mantain his strength despite the weight loss. Kemoeatu started camp on the PUP list and he is now healthy. The left guard play has been poor overall during the first two weeks and hopefully he can prove that he deserves that he owns that spot. The Steelers like to pull him to the right side and if that knee still bothers him, it will show very easily.
Wounded Corners – The Steelers are not healthy at the cornerback position and they will once again be without the services of starting right cornerback Ike Taylor against the Falcons. Several other corners are deemed as questionable against the Falcons and they are Bryant McFadden, Crezdon Butler and rookie Cortez Allen. Both McFadden and Allen have yet to play this preseason, while Butler has seen just limited time with a reported quad injury. Rumors persist that McFadden could be the odd man out if he continues to remain sidelined as Keenan Lewis has started to show some signs of development during his absence. Allen and Butler could certainly use the game action as neither are fully guaranteed a roster spot with the emergence of free agent Donovan Warren. The Falcons passing offense will be a great measuring stick for any corner that can get on the field and hopefully all thee players mentioned can get in some well needed playing time.
No Huddle & Situational Work – Roethlisberger is not shy about his fondness of the no huddle offense and the Steelers will likely try to polish up on that facet of their game against the Falcons. I look for multiple receiver sets to be used and will be interested in how effective the execution and efficiency goes when and if they break it out. Tomlin also said on Thursday that they have prepared more this week for the situational part of their game as well, so that would include some two-minute offense type focus as well as red-zone conversions. The Steelers did a great job last week converting third downs and that needs to continue.
Double D Showcase? – Mike Tomlin did not reveal what the quarterback rotation will be after Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich play, so it leaves us to guess if indeed Dennis Dixon is battling for the No.3 spot with Charlie Batch or if he is being showcased for a possible trade instead. The Steelers know what they have in Batch, but he could still use the snaps if they are deciding on retaining him over Dixon. The bad thing about Saturday night is the fact that we still likely not know the answer to any of those questions and that is likely just the way that Tomlin wants it.
Happy With Gilmore? – Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians noted this past week that David Johnson is the clear cut second tight end, but also made it clear that the third tight end role is still up for grabs. Free agent acquisition John Gilmore seems to be having problems adjusting to situations where he is asked to play like a fullback or h-back as he is primarily known as an in-line tight end over the course of his career. Rookies Jamie McCoy and Wesyle Saunders still have time to progress over the next few weeks and McCoy could be the dark horse in this race as he is more in the mold of an h-back/fullback type that Arians desires. Watch this rotation early on as it might be a tip as to which of the three they are leaning towards keeping.
Game Prediction: Steelers 27 Falcons 20