This is dress rehearsal week around the NFL, and that term takes on an extra meaning for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Not only is it the third preseason game, when coach Mike Tomlin gives his starters extended playing time, the contest against the Tennessee Titans will be showcased nationally on NBC.
The broadcast also is a tuneup for the regular season, given two weeks later, on Sept. 8, the Steelers again will be part of the “Football Night in America” event when they open at New England.
The stakes aren’t quite as high this weekend, but Tomlin will be evaluating starters and substitutes alike to determine how they handle certain roles as the preseason begins to wind down.
Here are five players who will bear watching when the ball is placed on the kicking tee at 8 p.m. at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn.:
1. Donte Moncrief
Since the early days of organized team activities, Ben Roethlisberger talked glowingly about the chemistry he was developing with Moncrief, the veteran receiver who signed with the Steelers in free agency to fill Antonio Brown’s roster spot.
Roethlisberger and Moncrief finally get a chance to see if they are in sync in a game setting. Roethlisberger will be making his preseason debut, and Moncrief, after being slowed by a finger injury, will take the field for second time after making a brief appearance against Kansas City (eight snaps, one catch for 1 yard).
Moncrief is pushing James Washington to be the starting wide receiver opposite JuJu Smith-Schuster. The way the Steelers have rotated receivers throughout workouts, Moncrief figures to see plenty of playing time even if he isn’t the No. 2. But a good showing against Tennessee would be a step toward proving he deserves to be on the field as much as possible this season.
2. Vince Williams
Like Roethlisberger, Williams also is expected to make his preseason debut at Tennessee. Slowed by a hamstring injury, Williams was back at practice this week and should be good to go for the third preseason game.
Free-agent addition Mark Barron and rookie first-rounder Devin Bush are speedier players, but Williams is a reliable tackler and capable pass rusher who rarely is out of position. How the Steelers use Williams against the Titans could tip their hand on how frequently he takes the field in the regular season. Will he play strictly on the base defense? Will he stay on the field for certain subpackages? The picture should become a bit clearer after Sunday night.
3. Xavier Grimble
With the Steelers trying to determine whether their No. 2 tight end is on the roster or needs to be acquired before the season, Grimble has another chance to state his case that the job should stay in-house.
Grimble had one catch for 13 yards last weekend against Kansas City, but that was offset by a drop on a pass over the middle. Those are the type of mistakes a player can’t make when he’s trying to elevate his role.
Grimble’s roster spot likely is safe, but a good showing Sunday night could help convince the Steelers they don’t need to go outside to find Jesse James’ successor.
4. Sutton Smith
The moving train that Tomlin likes to cite is rolling into the second half of its preseason journey, and Smith has been stuck waiting at the station. The rookie sixth-round pick missed the first two games while dealing with an abdominal injury, and Tomlin admitted the linebacker has fallen behind others.
Smith can use the final two preseason games to state his case for inclusion on the 53-man roster. His availability Sunday will depend on how long the starters remain in the game. Smith came to the Steelers as an intriguing player: an undersized outside linebacker who could be flipped inside while dabbling at fullback.
Smith needs to catch the coaching staff’s attention via his play with the other reserves or on special teams. And he needs to do it soon because the train isn’t slowing down.
5. Ian Berryman
The punting duties will be divided into halves Sunday for the first time this preseason, and Berryman needs to take advantage of his reps if he is to unseat incumbent Jordan Berry.
Berry has punted five times with a 45.2 yard average, 44.2 net, no touchbacks and one attempt dropped inside the 20. Berryman, the undrafted free agent from Western Carolina, has punted three times in the preseason. He has a 46.0 average, 39.3 net, one touchback and one placed inside the 20. His long of 66 yards indicates he has the leg strength, but Berryman’s net shows he might be outkicking his coverage.
Berry has kept his job for four years based, in part, on his ability to place the ball inside the 20. Perhaps Berryman will get the chance to do the same against the Titans.