Benny Snell leads pack of 5 Steelers to watch in 2nd preseason game
Mike Tomlin sounded like he was narrating the introduction to “Days of Our Lives” on Thursday when he talked about how the “sand is running through the hourglass” for players to make the Pittsburgh Steelers roster.
“Guys are losing the opportunities to state the case for themselves,” Tomlin said, “so there is a certain urgency.”
The second opportunity for players to showcase their abilities in a game atmosphere will come Saturday against the Kansas City Chiefs.
In the preseason opener, Tomlin rested all but a handful of his starters, giving younger players a chance to take up the snaps. Tomlin said he plans to use more starters against Kansas City, although the game known as the “dress rehearsal” for the regulars won’t come until the third preseason game.
Which makes this game Saturday night important for the unproven and fringe players as they try to either win a spot on the 53-man roster or carve out a role on a team they are expected to make.
Here are five players who will bear watching when the ball is placed on the kicking tee at 7:30 p.m. at Heinz Field.
The Steelers spent a fourth-round draft pick on the former Kentucky running back, so he is in no danger of losing a roster spot. Snell, however, learned success isn’t immediate in the NFL.
Snell was the most-used running back against Tampa Bay, getting 13 carries. He gained just 26 yards and had a long run of 5 yards. Snell got nine rushing attempts in the first half before the Buccaneers emptied their bench on defense.
Snell also played 50 percent of the special teams snaps, and his role as a rookie likely will be determined by how much he contributes on Danny Smith’s units. It’s the same path James Conner took in his initial season with the Steelers.
The Steelers were beset by injuries at cornerback for the opener, and Burns joined starters Joe Haden (ankle contusion) and Steve Nelson (uninjured) on the sidelines.
Burns already has collected his $800,000 roster bonus, and the Steelers would like for him to earn it by serving as the top backup outside cornerback. With Haden resting his ankle again this weekend, Burns figures to return to a starting role.
Burns returned to practice this week and got plenty of work with the first team. Now he needs to hold off the versatile Cameron Sutton, who had one of the top training camps of any player on the roster.
The second preseason game is of equal importance to the rookie corner but for different reasons than Burns. Layne was forced into a starting role against Tampa Bay because of all the injuries, and he did not meet the challenge, with Tomlin calling the setting a “little big” for the third-round pick.
Layne, perhaps more than any other young player, will benefit from a do-over against the Chiefs. He won’t be thrown into the starting lineup and can enter the game facing players at similar junctures of their career.
Layne played 16 snaps on special teams, more than any other Steelers player, and that figures to be his role in his inaugural NFL season.
The path to a spot on the 53-man roster will be a difficult one for the veteran wide receiver but not because of any shortcomings the 27-year-old has shown. His position merely is one of the most crowded on the roster.
Holton, though, made a splash in the preseason opener when he caught a short pass and turned it into a 59-yard gain. He also had a 10-yard reception and returned two kickoffs for 45 yards.
The Steelers kept an extra wide receiver last year with Darrius Heyward-Bey serving mainly as a gunner on special teams. Holton brings a similar skill set.
An unspecified injury that led to surgery for camp phenom Ola Adeniyi on Friday creates an opportunity at outside linebacker, and Skipper should be the proverbial next man up.
Like Adeniyi, Skipper attended Toledo before joining the Steelers as an undrafted free agent. He could join Anthony Chickillo as the top backups against Kansas City. Starters Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt figure to make only token appearances, if they play at all, after each sat out the opener.
That could lead to more playing time for Skipper, who had one of the team’s four sacks against Tampa Bay while logging 48 snaps.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .