Wilson: First steps to final 53

For most people, the exhibition season is a snoozefest, but blogger Ryan Wilson loves these games. Not for the obvious reasons like watching the first team for a couple of meaningless series ...

... but because you get to see the second, third and fourth-teamers slug it out for a handful of starting jobs and even fewer roster spots. I fondly recall Willie Parker rushing for over 100 yards in a 2004 preseason game; Ricardo Colclough and Ike Taylor returning a punt and a kickoff, respectively, for touchdowns last preseason; and perhaps most unlikely, Sean Morey catching a game-winning touchdown pass in a Pittsburgh SteelersCarolina Panthers matchup a year ago. Where else, outside of the rare practice, are you going to see Sean Morey catch a touchdown pass?

Saturday afternoon at 4 PM EST can't get here fast enough, but while we wait, these are some storylines to look for as the game unfolds:

  • Ben Roethlisberger makes his first start since ... he made his last start in Super Bowl XL. Okay people, I'm begging you, let's all try to remain calm if Big Ben struggles during the preseason. Remember, he was slow out of the gate last year, and some of us were ready to give Tommy Maddox a September call up. Once the regular season started and the offense actually game-planned their opponents, Roethlisberger was fine. And Maddox? Well, he's trying to make it as a professional golfer these days.

    I have mixed feelings about Roethlisberger getting the start. I'd be fine if he didn't see the field until the season opener against the Dolphins, although I understand Bill Cowher's point when he says, "You can not simulate the speed of the game on the practice field." Fair enough, but I also don't want to simulate Roethlisberger's Monday night experience against the Baltimore Ravens either. I say give he and Charlie Batch a couple of series each, and put Shane Boyd and Omar Jacobs on mop up duty. Speaking of Jacobs ...

  • Is Omar Jacobs in real danger of getting cut? Someone with a lot more access than me believes it's a possibility given Jacobs's slow-on-the-uptake playbook-learnin'. Jacobs's future, in large part, will be decided by his preseason performance, but most Steelers fans feel the kid will be fine once he's comfortable in the system. It's also worth mentioning that Steelers fans don't make personnel decisions, so it doesn't really matter what we "feel." I don't know what to think because the few times I saw him in camp, Jacobs looked good – or at least I thought he did – only to later find out that his struggles with the mental part of the game was a much bigger concern among the coaching staff than his physical skills.

    I admit to being pretty surprised when the Steelers drafted Jacobs in the fifth round, especially after hometown favorite, Bruce Gradkowski, was still on the board. But the team needed to groom a backup and Jacobs, though raw, looked to have more long-term upside even if Gradkowski seemed like the perfect fit in a backup role. Well, this news won't make you feel any better. Gradkowski has a legitimate shot to win the second-string job in Tampa Bay, and despite a few Jon Gruden tongue lashings, he's seems to be one of the coach's favorites. (As much as you can be, I suppose, when the every other word out of the Gruden's mouth is of the four-letter variety.)

    If there's a silver lining, it's this: There were 11 quarterbacks drafted in April, but only two after Jacobs. Of those drafted after the second round, only Gradkowski's camp performance merits a mention. The Chiefs drafted Brodie Croyle in the third round and he's battling a shoulder injury. Fifth-rounder Ingle Martin (Packers) has had an up-and-down camp and has yet to "wow" anybody in Green Bay. D.J. Shockley, a seventh-rounder, has a lot of work to do just to make the team in Atlanta.

    Bottom line? Jacobs isn't alone in his struggles. Unless your name is Vince Young, Jay Cutler or Kellen Clemens, your spot on the roster isn't guaranteed. The Steelers could have taken the conservative route with Gradkowski, but they opted for the riskier, but potentially bigger return in Jacobs. His struggles learning the playbook have been documented, but let's say Jacobs legitimately only knows a handful of plays. I'd take that, a QB wristband, and my chances, over Tommy Maddox ever stepping foot on the field again in a Steelers uniform. And I'm dead serious. With a little game experience and a lot of studying, I think Jacobs will be fine. But like I said, I'm not the guy making roster decisions.

  • What will the depth chart look like at wideout? Who knows. Hines Ward won't play Saturday because of a tight hammy and Cedrick Wilson and Nate Washington will start, but after that, it's a crapshoot. It's still way too early to have any idea what the depth chart will look like heading into the regular season opener, but I'm excited to see how Washington handles live action, and what rookies Santonio Holmes and Willie Reid can do in the open field. There's no telling how many chances Roethlisberger will get to throw the ball down the field (if I'm Cowher, I make Big Ben hand off six consecutive times and then park him on the bench to yuk it up with the other first-teamers), but in the past he's preferred big targets (Plaxico Burress his rookie year; Quincy Morgan a lot last season). Let's see if he zeros in on Washington and Morgan early, or if he looks to get Holmes and Reid involved too.

    On a related note, Charles Davis should see a lot of action because of Jerame Tuman's hamstring injury. Davis has shown he can catch the ball, but I'll be watching closely to see if he can block. If he doesn't want to be labeled the Matt Kranchick 2.0, he might want to read this story about Mark Bruener to get himself sufficiently pumped.

  • Can Marvin Philip play center in a pinch? This was the question on everyone's mind when we found out Tuesday that backup Chukky Okobi might be done for the season. The good news is Okobi will only be out four-to-eight weeks. In the meantime, we'll find out if Philip can handle full-time duty if needed. Cowher stated in his press conference that the rookie sixth-rounder will get plenty of playing time Saturday, and that'll be one more thing to watch.

    I forget that despite bad knees, Jeff Hartings has been an iron man, so all of this may be a non-issue. It seems like he's perpetually staving off injuries, but Hartings hasn't missed a game since 2002. Hopefully nothing changes during the '06 season (knock on wood).

  • Who'll add depth to the other offensive line positions? In my New Season's Resolution column, I hoped for a Kendall Simmons rebound from an uneven 2005 season. So far, so good. Now it's a question of who can play behind the first-teamers. I'll be watching the second and third units closely, because if the 2003 season taught us anything, it's that the offensive goes only as far as a competent offensive line allows them. Todd Fordham, I'm looking directly at you.
  • Who wants to punt? If Omar Jacobs vs. Shane Boyd is the main event, Chris Gardocki vs. Mike Barr is on the undercard somewhere below the matchup pitting Ticket Office Intern No. 4 vs. Ticket Office Intern No. 5. It's that dull. I realize that punter – despite not really doing much for most of the game – is a pretty important position. I mean, the ball doesn't hold itself on point-after attempts and field goal tries. I was all set to write that Gardocki should probably win the job because of his experience and coffin corner proficiency. That, coupled with Barr's 37.8 yards per punt gross average in NFL Europe – which ranked last in the league – made the choice even easier. But after a little digging, I discovered that Barr led the league in punts downed inside the 20-yard. In fact, his inside-the-20 to touchback ratio was 87 percent, which would've ranked sixth in the NFL in 2005. Pittsburgh ranked 21st in the league with 74 percent conversion rate. Like most things, this will come down to on-field performance, but Barr has more of a shot than I originally thought.

  • Who'll stand out on special teams? Sean Morey and Chidi Iwuoma have made their livings on special teams, but this could be the year that changes. I love both guys, but like most training camps, Morey and Iwuoma will be fighting for roster spots until the very end. With a strong showing, rookie undrafted free agent Anthony Madison has a chance to unseat one of the uber-teamers, although it seems more likely to be Chidi since they play the same position.

    Other names to look out for: Lee Vickers. Can he be Mr. Wedge Buster now that Brett Keisel is the starting right defensive end? Richard Seigler. With Rian Wallace fully embracing his nickname, Seigler has a chance to make the team as a backup linebacker and special teams demon. If one player can provide half the lunacy Andre Frazier and James Harrison exhibited on special teams a year ago, don't be surprised if opposing teams start fair-catching kickoffs just to avoid injuries.

  • There are a million other subplots that will unfold during this first preseason game, and thanks to TiVo I'll be able to follow those too. In the meantime, this should get you started.


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