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Steelers’ preseason is a tale of fleeting-but-crucial moments

During the period between the annual NFL Draft and the opening of Steelers training camp, fans’ expectations gradually build looking forward to Opening Day of the regular season. But for rookies, free agents, and other members of the team’s preseason roster, the experience is quite different. For them, the start of training camp marks the beginning of a single month in which they either must make strong impressions or look forward to a fateful visit by the Turk. Not only is the pressure and stress quite intense for those hoping to earn spots on the 53-man roster, but these feelings are compressed into a period short enough that it seems to pass in the wink of an eye.

Many observers consider what happens during the preseason as rather meaningless because it’s quite difficult to evaluate players in matchups that don’t count. But due to an important change this year in the NFL rule governing roster reductions, there is only a single cut-down date (Tuesday, August 29) by which teams must trim their rosters from 90 to 53 players. Of course, teams retain the option to trade or cut players prior to this date because, otherwise, each team would need to trim their roster by 37 players at the end of the month. But the new rule certainly affords more flexibility for coaches to take longer looks at those players deemed to be on the fence in terms of their prospects for making the regular season roster. Nevertheless, when the Steelers return to the practice field on Tuesday, no player will have more than three weeks in which to make his case.

The few players who have beaten these tough odds in the past are those who come into training camp, not only with the necessary athletic prowess, but also with the determination and opportunism to prove they truly belong. This situation heightens the importance of avoiding mistakes and also making some splash plays during their limited opportunities. Last summer, free agent Jaylen Warren was the young player who seized this crucial moment — attracting everyone’s attention early in camp to best his competitors and earn his current place as the Steelers’ No. 2 RB.

But climbing this mountain also requires some good fortune. Untimely injuries — like those suffered this year by rookie Corey Trice Jr. and, last year, by Calvin Austin III — serve as harsh reminders that, regardless of how well a young player might prepare for this challenge, he suddenly can see his opportunity evaporate. Other players might miss opportunities for the simple reason that they’re unable to compile large enough bodies of work within this limited time frame for coaches to reach firm conclusions about whether they can contribute to a successful season.

Given the tremendous pressure on every NFL team to prepare themselves for starting the regular season on a positive note, the preseason emphasis for coaches increasingly shifts during August from evaluating new talent to the pragmatic task of getting their presumed, starting units ready for battle. This necessity has the effect of further shortening the relatively brief period in which a new face can make a decisive impact. But despite the many obstacles standing in their paths, fans likely can look forward the emergence of a small group of young Steelers during training camp whose odds are no better today than those Jaylen Warren successfully faced when he showed up at training camp last July as an undrafted free agent from Oklahoma State.

That’s the main reason why the next three weeks will be fascinating, perhaps even pivotal, in the team’s long-term fortunes. Steelers veterans are known quantities whose main focus at present is staying healthy while getting themselves prepared to succeed in meaningful games. If fans were to focus strictly on the veteran players, perhaps we might simply ignore all of this preseason hoopla. But history shows that those showing the ability to seize opportunities at an early stage of their NFL careers generally turn out to be among a team’s most impactful players in the long run. So the main intrigue in this merry-go-round of preseason football is our expectation that at least one or two players, whose names scarcely were known only a few months ago, will grab their brass rings and make significant contributions to the unfolding story of the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers. 

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