Steel City Underground presents our 2019 Steelers Recall: a look back at Pittsburgh Steelers games and storylines from last season.
A mere four days apart from their “dress rehearsal”, the Steelers traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina to play in their final preseason game of the 2019 season against the Carolina Panthers.
As far as preseason games go, this was what you’d expect: ugly football.
It started with a Jayrone Elliott fumble return for a touchdown and included a Mason Rudolph to Johnny Holton 31-yard touchdown pass for highlights, but little more stood out in the game other than who was, and wasn’t, likely to make the final cuts looming in the days ahead.
The Steelers backup quarterback battle was all but won by Rudolph, who posted a 7-of-11 for 125-yard performance, good for a 132.8 QB rating. His competition didn’t fare too well, with Devlin Hodges and Joshua Dobbs each struggling. Joshua Dobbs, who did get the start under center against the Panthers, would throw for only 21 yards and run for another 11, while Hodges completed only half of his 20 pass attempts and ended the evening with a 38.1 rating.
With the way the Steelers defense was playing, however, Dobbs' evaluation really didn't last that long before Mason Rudolph was sent into the game. Dobbs' preseason ended with zero touchdowns and his biggest plays of the night were with his legs.
With little to no rushing from the Steelers to speak of, the game turned into a contest of arms and scrambling ability for the Pittsburgh quarterbacks.
The guy at the top when it was all said and done was Rudolph. He finished his preseason with four touchdowns and looked ready to back up Ben Roethlisberger.
Holton had the biggest night of all the receivers. Granted, James Washington was given a few snaps but smartly pulled from the game as it became clear that the Carolina defense was ready to dial-up as much pressure as Pittsburgh was, especially up front.
This is a positional group that had been challenged in the preseason and looked deep in training camp, with a clear pecking order behind JuJu Smith-Schuster and Donte Moncrief. Washington looked like the Steelers number three receiver at this point, while there was a mixed bag of Holton, Ryan Switzer, Eli Rogers, Diontae Johnson and Diontae Spencer all fighting for roster spots.
The number of players playing skews most of the other stats. Rookie Benny Snell carried the load at running back with a game-high eight carries. The Steelers would punt seven times in the game, while turning the ball over twice (on a Hodges interception and a Matt Wright missed field goal) so there wasn’t much to get excited about in terms of offensive prowess being displayed:
Six of the Steelers offensive drives ended in three-and-outs.
The Steelers came to play on defense, however, even though a reported 24 players did not dress for this game (and that was almost everyone whose name Steelers fans were most familiar with).
It began with Ulysees Gilbert blocking a field goal attempt at the end of the Panthers' first offensive series. It picked up speed as Jayrone Elliott stripped the ball out of Will Grier's hand and scooped it up on the bounce to roll for 88 yards and a touchdown to give the Steelers a 7-0 lead.
Throw in sacks by Sutton Smith, Isaiah Buggs, Robert Spillane, then add an interception by Cam Sutton and another by Marcelis Branch, and the Steelers looked like they were locked in and locked on tight.
As had been the case all preseason, Tuzar Skipper was literally making plays all over the field, warranting demands from Steelers Nation for at least a spot on the practice squad, if not on the full 53-man roster, which was devoid of any outside linebacker depth heading into the preseason.
Skipper’s path, as noted going into the game, would be special teams. Oddly, the way most players at the bottom of the roster earn their spot is by playing on coverage units: Skipper had yet to play a single snap on special teams heading into the game, which became a focal point of the local media.
Unfortunately, with the Steelers offense stalling out in the final quarter, it meant that guys (like Skipper) who were trying to grab a spot on special teams or a depth position, remained in the game, and were gassed.
Carolina was able to take advantage in the final minutes of the game due, in part, to two roughing penalties and then some miscommunication among Pittsburgh defenders.
Kicker Matthew Wright also missed a field goal and an extra point attempt, throughout the game, quelling the Chris Boswell controversy, at least for a week. (At the time Boswell was still on the hot seat, having had his roster bonus contractually moved from March to making the team at the end of the preseason.)
Overall, the miscues would cost Pittsburgh the game. If you were keeping score at home, the exhibition games don’t go in the record book, but any fans who were hoping for a perfect preseason, didn't get it. Yet, the team looked prepared, and as deep as ever, with the final roster decisions to be made in the coming days.