Friday night the Pittsburgh Steelers will play the Jacksonville Jaguars in the preseason for the first time in history. But it will not be the first time the Steelers have played a preseason game in Jacksonville, Fla.
It's been 45 years, but in 1970 the Steelers kicked off their preseason in Jacksonville against the Miami Dolphins. In front of only 11,800 fans at the Gator Bowl on Aug. 8, 1970, the Steelers lost 16-10 in a game noted for the following debuts:
It was the first game the Steelers ever played as a member of the American Football Conference.
Terry Bradshaw made his first appearance in a Steelers uniform, completing his first two passes before finishing 9-of-19 for 92 yards and an interception.
Don Shula coached his first game as the Dolphins’ head coach.
But perhaps most importantly, it was the first time Myron Cope ever broadcast a Steelers game.
This game, which will be shown on local television instead of the networks, probably won't make the same historic impact the Steelers' first preseason game in Jacksonville did.
But Tahj Boyd is expected to play for the first time as a Steelers quarterback. And while it seems rather unlikely Boyd will eventually lead Pittsburgh to four Super Bowl championships, he will have karma on his side.
That said, here are the five things to look for Friday night in Jacksonville.
1. Will the Steelers keep making excuses?
Shaun Suisham is lost for the season because of the lousy playing surface in Canton.
Jesse James dropped two passes because he was distraught about the passing of a friend from South Allegheny High School.
The Steelers' top players didn't suit up for the Hall of Fame Game.
Enough! Head coach Mike Tomlin has said all healthy Steelers will play in the game, and while it's unlikely they'll see lengthy action (so don't miss kickoff!), at least they'll have the chance to set the tone for the game.
Not to be unsympathetic to James and the friends and family of his departed-too-soon friend from Glassport, but if off-field circumstances are affecting a player's performance in the middle of the third quarter, he needs more focus.
Condolences should abound, not dropped passes.
Fieldturf is the playing surface at the stadium formerly known as Fawcett (what does Tom Benson have to do with Canton, Ohio, anyway), which the Steelers have in their indoor practice facility. It is certainly an improvement from TartanTurf, which Rod Woodson tore his knee up on at Three Rivers Stadium in 1995, or the bumpy rock pile old Cleveland Municipal Stadium was, where current linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky tore up his knee and lost forever his starting position in 1993 immediately following the Indians' last season there.
2. How will Garrett Hartley do?
The Steelers' new kicker made 11 of 13 in practice on Wednesday. Historically, however, though he's never missed a kick in 23 postseason attempts, he is only 77 percent (27 for 35) in his career from 30-39 yards, where extra points are now kicked from.
Nothing to worry about, or the return of David Trout?
Incidentally, speaking of excuses, the recent media discussion Tomlin should have brought two kickers into camp is nothing but erroneous hindsight.
Suisham was signed for four years this offseason and any additional kicker signed by the Steelers under the circumstances would have to be someone who just wanted experience. He wouldn't have been as good as Hartley, who is actually an improvement from Suisham from long range. In his career, Hartley has been successful on six of eight field goal attempts from 50 yards and beyond.
So instead of having their choice of three quality kickers to audition this week, the signing of another kicker would have put the Steelers in a position to feel pressure to keep a player like Tom Obarski, who the Cincinnati Bengals have brought in to compete with Mike Nugent. Obarski is from Concordia-St. Paul, a school so small the Bengals' roster on ESPN.com lists Obarski's college as "null" and "none."
Furthermore, imagine waiting for a job interview. Across the waiting room is the person you know will be interviewing for the same job; an awkward situation to say the least.
Now imagine being in that room with your competition for six weeks.
That's what it's like with two kickers in camp. They are told to stand off to the side and watch the other players practice daily, every now and then attempting a practice kick to break up the boredom. There's little conversation, the atmosphere thick with both men knowing the other is trying to take away his job.
Now you know why kickers are said to be flakes. Such a situation is simply not a healthy environment and if it can be avoided, it should.
3. Who will play quarterback?
Ben Roethlisberger is slated to get 10-12 snaps, and Bruce Gradkowski is still on the Physically Unable to Perform list. This means still more Landry Jones, though, as mentioned above, Tomlin has said Boyd will see action as well. Will Tyler Murphy get the occasional snap as a wild card option between quarterback and receiver, a la Antwaan Randle El, or could he get an honest-to-goodness series, a la Kordell Stewart?
Murphy can breathe easier now that Devin Gardner was released this week. Gardner had also been auditioning for a roster spot as a quarterback-wide receiver hybrid.
If Gradkowski remains on the shelf, Boyd may have a legitimate chance to be the backup. Jones has failed to impress at any point in his Steelers career and, 2013 fourth-round selection or no, if he continues to sputter and Boyd plays well in whatever time he is given, can the Steelers continue to justify his spot ahead of Boyd on the depth chart?
4. What will DeAngelo Williams’ role be?
Williams didn't play against Minnesota on Sunday, but he likely will be the starter for the season's first two games as Le'Veon Bell serves his suspension for marijuana use and a DUI charge.
How much action Williams receives, how well he does, and, most of all, if he catches any passes out of the backfield are things to watch with an eye on the first two games of the regular season. Remember, Williams historically has not been the pass catcher Bell has shown himself to be. Last season Bell led all running backs with 854 yards on 83 receptions.
5. Will the secondary get burned again?
With as many options as the Steelers have at linebacker, the feeling is the front seven will take care of itself. But with Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor now gone from a defense that finished 27th in the NFL last year against the pass, questions abound.
New cornerback Brian Boykin made a splash against the Vikings, but there was still a breakdown where Minnesota tight end MyCole Pruitt was wide open and was able to run into the end zone untouched from 34 yards out after catching a pass over the middle in the second quarter.
Safeties Robert Golden and Ross Ventrone of Chartiers Valley and cornerback Senquez Golson are expected to miss the game due to injury. The safeties are journeymen; their absence figures to be minimal. Golson's loss, which could be for the entire season if he undergoes surgery on his shoulder, is a setback to a prospect's development, however large or small.
(DeAngelo Williams photo courtesy of www.steelers.com)
— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson has been a contributor to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 15 years. He has covered the Steelers, Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.