The 5: Things to watch for in the Steelers vs. Buccaneers preseason opener

We made it. The Pittsburgh Steelers play football tonight. They finished the season winning their last four games, going 7-2 after the bye, falling just short of a playoff berth.

This was largely due to the youth of the team stepping up, especially rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett, and the return of the Steelers all-world edge rusher, T.J. Watt. Now, with a season of experience behind them, they will look to build off the success of their late-season push and rally to make it back to the playoffs in a crowded AFC race. 

This isn’t the first we’ll see of the 2023 Steelers, though. Open practices at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe are a time-honored tradition and have given a glimpse of which players might take a leap this year, as well as some unexpected guys who could make a run at a spot on the 53-man roster.

Head Coach Mike Tomlin hasn’t been very specific (he rarely is) about playing time for his sharpied-in starters, but he did say in a recent press conference that everyone who is healthy will play.  

So using observations from camp, along with Tomlin’s willingness to let his starters play in the first preseason game, here are five players to look out for when the Steelers take the field Friday night in Tampa.

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Kenny Robinson

Robinson shares a first name with the most popular man in Pittsburgh, but it’s his ball production and energy that could earn him a spot on the Steelers opening day roster.

Throughout camp, there has been a common theme of praise for the former XFL safety.

Robinson will likely run with the second-team defense in Tampa, but with the Steelers’ secondary still fluid, he could see himself vaulted into a number of roles with the first team.

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Kendrick Green

Green would be higher if his story of interior offensive-lineman turned fullback was a little more under-the-radar… but it’s not. He has been taking reps with the ball carriers at practice and could see a role as a blocker or trick play specialist.

It’s somewhat humorous, but he could seriously be effective in a fullback role, as he is a relatively quick mover and extremely athletic for his build.

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George Pickens

You’ll be watching him whether you like it or not, but I thought that the sophomore wideout was necessary for a list detailing players to keep your eye on.

If one were to go on any Steeler beat reporter’s Twitter/X account from the past two weeks, they would find at least one paragraph detailing the spectacular catch he made on that particular day during open practice. I would expect his breathtaking catch ability to translate into the preseason stadiums.

Don’t be surprised if Pickens catches a ball with less than a hand’s worth of fingers tonight. 

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Veteran (97, 90, 39, 56, 20) vs. Youth (24, 95, 93, 51) playing time on D

Obviously this doesn’t put a particular focus on any player, but rather on the head coach and his assistants. I was a bit surprised to hear Tomlin detail a plan on Wednesday morning that included his veteran defensive players playing in some capacity Friday night.

Look out for who is playing with who in Tampa, and for how many series. While it is important for the veteran guys to get back into the swing of a full-contact game, I would expect the young starters/fringe starters to get an extended look, a longer one than say a T.J. Watt or Cam Heyward.

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Kenny Pickett

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the fate of the coming months in the greater Pittsburgh area rests on the shoulders of Kenny Pickett. No other QB on the roster is going to be able to take the Steelers where they want to go. It’ll be up to Pickett to prove that he’s taken a leap and can turn the flashes of brilliance shown down the stretch into consistent, high-level play.

So, tonight, don’t watch the scoreboard or even how many yards the offense totals. The preseason games are inconsequential by nature. Watch #8 and his chemistry with receivers, timing, and accuracy on all levels of throws.

That will be the real story.

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