The Pittsburgh Steelers will close out their 2017 preseason schedule Thursday night on the road against the Carolina Panthers and while several of the team’s more established players are certainly unlikely to see much, if any, action in this contest, there will still be several other younger players worth keeping a close eye on just the same.
Below are 10 defensive players that Steelers fans will likely want to watch closely Thursday night against the Panthers along with reasons why.
CB Ross Cockrell – The Steelers signed former Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden on Wednesday and that means he’ll now be the team’s starter opposite Artie Burns. The addition of Haden now means that Cockrell might just be a few days away from being unemployed. Cockrell is likely to see extended playing time Thursday night against the Panthers and at this point it’s hard to imagine him not being one of potentially four dogs fighting for one bone. The fact that Cockrell isn’t known as being a huge special teams contributor also works against him. Will he get some serious special teams burn Thursday night as well? We’ll see, but regardless of where and how much he ultimately winds up playing against the Panthers, he better make the most of his opportunities if he wants to remain in Pittsburgh.
CB Coty Sensabaugh – If Cockrell is on this list, Sensabaugh needs to be on it as well. While Sensabaugh’s roster spot appears to be safer than Cockrell’s right now, what happens Thursday night in the team’s preseason finale might just change that. A few nice plays by Sensabaugh against the Panthers should be enough to cement his spot on this year’s 53-man roster as he has more position flexibility than his primary competition does.
CB Cameron Sutton – Unlike Cockrell and Sensabaugh, Sutton’s spot on this year’s 53-man roster is obviously safe. The team’s first of two third-round draft picks this year had a nice NFL debut last weekend against the Indianapolis Colts and we’ll be looking for him to make a few more plays Thursday night against the Panthers. We could see Sutton play both inside and outside in this game in addition to some on special teams. He’s trying to catch up to the moving train that got ahead of him due to a hamstring injury that he had to battle back from during training camp.
ILB Steven Johnson – Johnson sat out the Steelers third preseason game with a hamstring injury and right now there’s no telling if he’ll ultimately play Thursday night. If Johnson is forced to sit again, it certainly could signal the end of his brief career in Pittsburgh. Johnson has made an NFL career out of being a solid special teams contributor so if he does wind up playing against the Panthers, he probably needs to show coordinator Danny Smith that he can’t be left off the 53-man roster.
S Robert Golden – Is Golden still a lock to make the final 53-man roster? With starting safety Mike Mitchell currently battling an injury that has kept him sidelined for quite a while, one would think the Steelers will most certainly enter the regular season with at least four true safeties on their 53-man roster. With that said, Golden really hasn’t made any plays so far during the preseason. His saving grace might be the fact that he’s still been the main upback on the punt team and to my knowledge, running back Knile Davis is the only other player currently on the Steelers roster to see snaps at that position so far during the preseason. It would be nice to see Golden stick out in a positive way Thursday night against the Panthers.
CB Dashaun Phillips – After the Steelers traded for Phillips late last week, the former Washington Redskins starting slot cornerback didn’t play in the team’s third preseason games against the Indianapolis Colts. That wasn’t surprising, however, based on the short time he had to prepare for that contest. Thursday night against the Panthers, one would think that Phillips will make his Steelers debut as long as he’s fully healthy. While he’s a long-shot to make the Steelers 53-man roster now that Haden has been signed, a spot on the team’s 10-man practice squad could still be very much in play. Can Phillips make a few plays on special teams as well? We’ll see Thursday night.
DL Lavon Hooks – Heading into the Steelers preseason finale, it appears as though Hooks still has a shot to make the final 53-man roster as a sixth defensive lineman. One would think he’s battling Johnny Maxey for that spot if indeed six in total at that position group are ultimately kept. Hooks figures to get a lot of playing time Thursday night against the Panthers so look closely for the player in white wearing No. 65.
DL Johnny Maxey – If Hooks is on this list, Maxey needs to be on it as well. Even though the Mars Hill product ended the 2016 season on the Steelers 53-man roster, he hasn’t done much so far this preseason to show that he deserved a spot this year. We’ll be counting the snaps of both Maxey and Hooks Thursday night along with analyzing the quality of play of them all. Is this another two dogs, one bone battle right now? It certainly appears that way. Even if neither winds up making the final 53-man roster, both could be in play for a spot on the Steelers 10-man practice squad.
DL Daniel McCullers – While McCullers has had a few nice moments so far during the preseason, you really must wonder if he’s had enough of them to make a difference. Thursday night very well could be the last time we see McCullers in a Steelers uniform and being as he’s a former draft pick, it’s worth putting him on the list of players to watch this week. Big Dan needs a big game Thursday night.
ILB Matt Galambos – Is Galambos the new L.J. Fort? The Pittsburgh product sure has played a ton so far during the preseason not only on defense, but special teams as well. If the Steelers wind up only keeping four inside linebackers on their final 53-man roster, Galambos could very well wind up on the practice squad next week. He should get some serious playing time Thursday night against the Panthers.