PITTSBURGH — There will be NFL football played on Thursday night, as the Pittsburgh Steelers visit the Carolina Panthers for their fourth and final preseason contest of 2019.
But the number of NFL football players might be awfully few.
With both teams expected to rest most of their starters and critical reserves, the game will mostly be contested by players that are battling for one of a handful of still-available roster spots on either side.
That won’t mean much to a fan hoping to catch a glimpse of Ben Roethlisberger or Cam Newton.
But it means an awful lot to the players in the heat of those battles.
For the Steelers, one of the toughest ones will come at outside linebacker. Backups Ola Adeniyi, who is still expected to miss another couple weeks after knee surgery, and Anthony Chickillo (chest) have both missed time with injuries.
So has sixth-round pick Sutton Smith, who missed several weeks of training camp and the first two preseason games with an abdominal injury and went from a three-way standout during OTAs to the outside of the roster looking in approaching the regular season.
Those absences opened the door for another player to make an impact at outside linebacker. Toledo alum Tuzar Skipper has kicked it down.
Skipper, a 6-foot-3, 246-pound former collegiate defensive end, has been a pass-rushing menace through three preseason games, racking up three sacks, another quarterback hurry, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
The fumble recovery came in the Week 2 preseason game against Kansas City, and afterward, Skipper asked the Steelers equipment staff if he could have the ball from his first NFL turnover.
If there are going to be more balls in that category than just one, Skipper will have to continue to show that he’s too good to be cut. Turnovers are a big part of that.
“It’s Pittsburgh, AKA Blitzburgh,” Skipper said. “Anything that we can get a turnover on, we’re going to capitalize on it. It could be a fumble recovery, an interception, sack/fumble, it’s doesn’t matter. Any time it’s a turnover, we like that.”
Skipper has been a big part of an increased number of turnovers and plays at the quarterback this preseason for the Steelers. But come Sundays, that role might not be available. Starters Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt seem primed for strong seasons. Chickillo could be healthy by the opener against New England, and Adeniyi won’t be all that far behind.
If Skipper is going to have a big impact on the 2019 Steelers, it’s probably going to be on special teams. It’s a fact he’s aware of, but he only has three snaps in the third phase through three games. It’s not for lack of want-to.
“That’s where I feel like I will make the team — special teams,” Skipper said. “Don’t get me wrong, I can make it defense-wise, but let’s be realistic, we’ve got four studs coming back. … Where I want to be is playing that special teams aspect. It’s crazy to say I love this man already, but Danny Smith is a good coach that thinks like that. Just like I say about Mike Tomlin, I’m ready to work for those two guys.”
Skipper might get the opportunity to show what he can do on special teams Thursday night. If he does, and he does well, it might be the key to a roster spot and a few more of those footballs down the road.