The fourth game of the preseason is always the one where starters sit out and third stringers play for their lives. The fact that the Steelers are now 3-1 after a 33-17 win over the Panthers is less important than the players who starred. Here’s some quick thoughts on who stood out.
* The most encouraging sight in the final exhibition game was the play of wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders led the Steelers receivers with four catches for 60 yards. In his first action since injuring his foot in the Super Bowl, Sanders looked like he hadn’t missed a day. Admittedly, it’s easier to get open against second and third-string Panthers’ defenders, but Sanders showed the quickness, good hands and solid route running that should give defenses trouble. Picking between him and Antonio Brown for playing time is going to be a real difficult problem.
* If Sanders showed a burst, the same could be said about tailback Jonathan Dwyer. If every game was the fourth game of the preseason, Dwyer would be getting a bust in Canton — cutdown day seems to inspire him. He rushed for 83 yards on 20 carries last year against the Panthers with a 36-yard dash. This year Dwyer rushed for 175 yards on 37 carries with a 50-yard touchdown run. Dwyer showed surprising speed, a good ability to run behind his pads and more elusiveness than you would expect.
After the way he ran tonight, Dwyer actually seemed to earn a roster spot. Before this week you could argue he was getting the spot by default because of Baron Batch’s injury.
* On a less encouraging note, cornerback Crezdon Butler made strides toward securing a roster spot last week with a 95-yard interception return for a touchdown. He gave back some of that goodwill this week as he was beaten for a 41-yard touchdown pass.
* Rookie corner Curtis Brown was also beaten for a big gain. In Brown’s case, he simply didn’t keep up with his man and was unable to adjust as the receiver came back for an underthrown ball.
* It sure looked like Keith Williams is headed to the practice squad when he didn’t play last week. The best explanation for that is to make sure other teams don’t get much tape to evaluate him. But Williams was back on the field this week. And he actually got onto the field before Chris Scott did. It’s hard to say whether either of them will make the final roster, but to be honest, neither is likely to have the talent to cause any sleepless nights worrying about losing them.
* Cortez Allen got his first action as a Steeler and he generally looked OK. He made a nice tip that turned into a Will Allen interception, then he dropped another potential interception, although that was really all about Jimmy Clausen’s pathetic attempts to impersonate an NFL quarterback more than anything that Allen did — Clausen missed his man by several yards. The decision of which cornerbacks to keep is going to be the most difficult decision the Steelers’ front office has to make this weekend.