Steelers reserves, rookies will be on big stage

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If it were solely up to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the meaningless preseason football game tonight between the Steelers and Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C., would long ago have been turned into a regular-season game with all the trappings and ramifications that go with one.

Goodell does not have Derek Moye or Justin Brown in mind.

While Goodell has proposed dumping half the four-game preseason schedule and adding two games to the regular season, young players everywhere hope he never gets his way. Tonight is their chance.

Most of the first-teamers either will not play or not play long (you will not see Ben Roethlisberger tonight other than on the sideline). This is the time when the Moyes and Browns of the NFL can either show why they should make the 53-man roster that will be set Saturday, the eight-man practice squad or impress one of the other 31 teams enough to take them.

"It's a big opportunity for me," said Moye, an undrafted receiver from Penn State who spent time in his 2012 rookie season with three teams, including the Steelers practice squad, but never made a roster.

"I look forward to going out there and showing the coaches what I can do on the field one last time before they make a decision on who is going to make the team."

Moye and Brown, former teammates at Penn State, seemingly are competing for the team's fifth wide-receiver spot. That is, if coach Mike Tomlin keeps a fifth wide receiver. He kept only four in 2012 when he cut to his 53-man roster. He might prefer an extra running back or tight end because of injuries at those two positions.

But it's not just Tomlin and his staff that Moye, Brown and others on the 75-man roster still vying for jobs want to convince.

"Even if you don't make the team," 12-year veteran Larry Foote said, "a lot of teams are shopping for players, so it's critical to put some good tape out there."

Goodell wants to reduce the preseason because he believes the customers do not get their money's worth for these games and they pay the same price for tickets as they do for those in the regular season. Before 1978, the NFL played six exhibition games and sometimes seven because the Super Bowl champ also had to open against the College All-Stars in a game that ended in 1976 when the Steelers played them.

But cutting the preseason games in half would reduce the chances for young, on-the-brink players to show what they have.

"I honestly like the way it's set up," said center Maurkice Pouncey, whose play in his rookie preseason convinced the coaches to start him right away. "Guys get opportunities. If you have two preseason games, the young guys won't get to play at all. The first game, we'll play half and the second game would be a full game. It would make it a lot harder for guys to make teams."

Backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski once was one of those players, a sixth-round draft choice by Tampa Bay in 2006.

"Every preseason game was huge," Gradkowski said. "This is a chance for guys to show what they can do and also to get that game experience. You don't get many opportunities.

"Me and Ryan Clark were talking about it the other day. He was an undrafted guy. These preseason games helped him make the team. They're very important."

There is, however, another side to it.

Coaches say the politically correct thing, that competition for jobs is keen in training camp and preseason games. In reality, many coaches will say in a private moment that they could pick their team before training camp started, right down to a few roster battles.

Tunch Ilkin believes that. He played for the Steelers from 1980-92 and another year with the Green Bay Packers.

In his time, the final preseason game tonight would have been the most important, when coaches played their first teams into the fourth quarter to have them ready to open the season. The starters would play about one quarter in the first game, close to a half in the second and third and most of the fourth.

"I liked that. I felt I was more game-ready for that first regular-season game. Usually, that first game, if it's 1 o'clock outside, it's going to be hot. I wanted to know in my mind that I could play 60 minutes in the heat.

"These guys haven't come out in the third quarter yet! Well I guess the offensive line did. I loved the old way. I understand why they do it this way, because of the injuries. If you get hurt in the last preseason game, you don't have a lot of time to heal up. If you get hurt in that third preseason game, now you have two weeks to get ready."

Pouncey would like to see the offensive line play more than usual for a fourth preseason game. They are a young line and need more time working together.

As it is, "This is the most we've played in preseason games since I've been here" Pouncey said of the linemen. "We're all young, and we're all excited to be out there. We'll play every single game, it doesn't matter."

Tight end Heath Miller won't play tonight and might not have had he been healthy. He will watch, though.

"There's probably a few spots on the back end, and this fourth game gives guys an opportunity to really make their case, and that's kind of fun to watch."

Jobs -- and sometimes, careers -- can be lost tonight, too. Sean Spence was one of those rookies trying to make an impression a year ago.

He did and looked like a future starter at inside linebacker right up until the fourth preseason game, also against the Carolina Panthers, at Heinz Field.

Spence left that game with a sickening knee injury that included nerve damage. He spent his rookie season on injured reserve and was placed on the reserve/physically unable to perform list this week. He might miss a second season, and his career remains in limbo.

"It happens, you can't predict," Pouncey said. "I don't care if you play 10 snaps, you can get hurt on the first snap. You can't predict injuries, even in practice."


For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at Ed Bouchette: and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published August 29, 2013 4:30 AM


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