Chris Boswell among 5 players to watch in Steelers’ preseason opener
Since the day the 2018 season ended short of a playoff appearance, the Pittsburgh Steelers have waited for the opportunity when they could start making amends.
That process begins Friday in the form of the preseason opener that will help define the makeup of the 53-man roster the Steelers will take into the season opener Sept. 8 at New England.
This initial tuneup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be minus veteran starters such as Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey and Joe Haden, among others. It will, however, be the first chance for the coaching staff to evaluate the rookie draft class, other newcomers and returning backups in a game setting this summer.
Here are five players who will bear watching starting at 7:30 p.m. at Heinz Field.
Boswell has been near-perfect in practices at Saint Vincent and the Family Fest event at Heinz Field last weekend. But even coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged “we haven’t done anything yet” in regards to determining the victor of the kicking competition.
Boswell will alternate kicks with undrafted free agent Matthew Wright. At stake for Boswell is a $2 million roster bonus that was pushed back from March until after the final preseason game. A good start in the preseason opener would bode well for Boswell’s chances of collecting that bonus and spending a fifth season kicking for the Steelers.
Joshua Dobbs, the No. 2 quarterback in 2018, will get the start, but Rudolph also will get plenty of work as he mounts his challenge to win the backup job.
Rudolph did not appear in any games as a rookie, while Dobbs’ experience was limited to two meaningful appearances and 12 passing attempts. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner set up training camp repetitions so Rudolph and Dobbs have gotten equal time working with the second team (and occasionally the first when Roethlisberger sits out).
“One has been better than the other, and it’s gone back and forth,” Fichtner said Wednesday.
Perhaps one will distinguish himself from the other against Tampa Bay.
The first-round draft pick and No. 10 overall selection began training camp by rotating with veterans Vince Williams and Mark Barron at inside linebacker in the base defense and the nickel subpackage while staying on the field as the lone linebacker in the dime.
Because of a hamstring injury to Williams a week ago, Bush has remained on the field nearly the entire time no matter the situation. The Steelers like the speed Bush brings to the position, and inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky called his star pupil as good “as advertised.”
Bush won’t be the only high-profile linebacker on the field Friday. Tampa Bay’s Devin White, the No. 5 overall pick, also will make his pro debut.
James Conner is the starter, and fourth-round draft pick Benny Snell has commanded the media attention, but perhaps the most intriguing running back heading into the preseason is Samuels.
As a rookie, Samuels didn’t get his first rushing attempt until nearly Halloween, and he didn’t start until an injury to Conner in December. Samuels’ best performance came in a 17-10 win against New England when he rushed for 142 yards and had another 30 receiving. The former college tight end provides a capable pass-catching option out of the backfield, and the Steelers have drawn up plays in which Conner and Samuels are on the field together.
Conner will play sparingly, if at all, in the opener, which could give Samuels more time to show coaches how much he has developed since 2018.
Free safety is a position the Steelers did not address in the draft, which is one reason they turned to Kelly, a first-year player, when starter Sean Davis injured his finger on the first day of practice in pads.
Kelly is a product of the Alliance of American Football, and he did not play the deep safety spot until the Steelers signed him after the league folded. Kelly worked with the first team until Wednesday, when undrafted free agent P.J. Locke replaced him in practice. It will be worth watching how many snaps Kelly gets against Tampa Bay, particularly with Davis stating he would like to resume practicing next week.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .