The Pittsburgh Steelers will get game action for the first time this season when they host the Detroit Lions at Heinz Field with kickoff set for 7 p.m.
Granted, the team will look considerably different than the one they will field when they open their season against the Washington Redskins Sept. 12, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty on the line for a number of players fighting for a 53-man roster spot.
Here’s some key themes and things to look for against the Lions tomorrow night.
In a crowded OLB group, who makes a statement?
What’s the most talented, deep position for the Steelers in camp? I’d say outside linebacker.
Although veterans James Harrison and Arthur Moats give the group plenty of experience and can provide a safety valve if needed as starters, it’s a core group of youngsters that will be worth watching tomorrow night.
Former first-round picks Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree are penciled in as starters, but both have a long way to go to be considered locks when the team opens in Washington in a month. Will Jones break out after three seasons marred by injuries and inconsistent play? Can Dupree take a big step forward in his second season and be a force as a pass-rush specialist?
One of the biggest stories in camp has been the play of Anthony Chickillo. Chickillo has been so good early in camp that there is a belief he might push for regular season playing time. After playing on the defensive line at 285 pounds in college, Chickillo has cut his weight to 250 and he’s looking like a potential future starter.
Keep an eye on Mike Reilly. Although a long shot to make the 53-man roster, Reilly has opened eyes in camp and the team will hope to stash him on the practice squad for further development.
Questions at tight end and wide receiver need answered
When the team signed tight end Ladarius Green this off-season, the hope was he would fill the considerable void left when Heath Miller retired. Unfortunately, a slow recovery from ankle surgery has kept Green out of practice and couple that with the release of Matt Spaeth and tight end depth looks precariously thin.
Pittsburgh native Jesse James is now pressed into a starting role until Green is healthy and will be expected to prove he’s ready to be a reliable option in his second season. After James, veteran David Johnson is a solid run blocker, but adds little in the passing game.
That’s where Xavier Grimble could come into play. Grimble is a raw talent with the athleticism and pass-catching ability that intrigues the Steelers. Few players on offense have more to gain from a solid in-game performance than the second year product from USC. Definitely keep an eye on him against the Lions.
Much like the linebacker group, the Steelers have plenty of talent at wide receiver but only so many roster spots available. Three youngsters look to be fighting for one of those precious spots; Eli Rogers, Issac Blakeney and Demarcus Ayers.
Expect all three to get a ton of looks and a big performance by any of them could give them an edge for a final spot. Rogers has been turning heads as a playmaker at slot receiver while Blakeney is a big-framed target who suddenly looks like a player who will at least make the practice squad. Ayers, a seventh-round pick expected to make a case in the return game, could help his cause by proving he’s more than just a special teamer.
A few more noteworthy players to watch?
With plenty of players needing to open eyes, here’s a few other players to look for.
Defensive end Caushaud Lyons was a sleeper pick to make the roster heading into camp, yet he’s done little to earn a spot so far. Lyons needs to pick things up quickly if he’s going to unseat L.T. Walton and Ricardo Mathews.
L.J. Fort has bounced around the league for several seasons and despite of a talented group of inside linebackers fighting for spots, Fort might end up making the team. Watch him on special teams, that might be the difference. Another inside linebacker to watch is rookie Tyler Matakevich. After an illustrious college career, Matakevich is known for overcoming physical limitations when it’s game time. He’s high on the list of players to focus on if you are looking for a training camp sleeper.
Want one way out in left field? Punter Will Monday is a legitimate talent at punter who might just give the Steelers a lot to think about over the next few weeks as he tries to unseat starter Jordan Berry.
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