On Thursday the Pittsburgh Steelers travel to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Most Steelers fans figure to focus their attention on 2021 first-round draft pick Najee Harris, not to mention second-round pick Pat Freiermuth, the latter of whom is expected to make his professional debut. Rookie punter Pressley Harvin III will be closely watched as well, especially since he was the standout rookie in Pittsburgh’s 16-3 win over the Dallas Cowboys in last Thursday’s Pro Football Hall of Fame game.
But a number of so-called “under the radar” players have been attracting positive notice in training camp, either from Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, or from Steelers beat reporters—or both. Following are three players to watch on Thursday evening.
Defensive Lineman Carlos Davis
The strongest position group on the Steelers is the defensive line, which Pro Football Focus (PFF) recently ranked as the No. 1 defensive line unit in the league. But with outside linebacker T.J. Watt in the midst of a “hold-in” and defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt still not practicing in the wake of his brother’s tragic, fatal accident, additional reps have been available to young defenders like rookie sixth-round pick Quincy Roche and second-year nose tackle Carlos Davis.
Davis didn’t make much noise as a rookie, in part because of all of the talent ahead of him on Pittsburgh’s defensive line. In fact, the most memorable moment in Davis’ rookie season was getting into an in-game sideline spat with fellow defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs.
But on Tuesday, Tomlin praised the former Nebraska Cornhusker, telling Tim Benz of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he’s been “pleased with [Davis’] growth and development…. That’s a guy that’s had some elevated varsity reps because of the lack of participation of some of the more veteran guys. I like some of the things that he’s displayed.
“He ran a quality game [against the Cowboys] and had a quarterback hit on the interception by Donovan [Stiner],” Tomlin added. “We talk about the interception, but rush and coverage work together,” possibly thinking of a rush Davis had before Steelers cornerback Justin Layne stripped the ball from a Cowboys wide receiver.
Running Back Anthony McFarland Jr.
Another second-year player who didn’t make much of an impact in 2020 was former fourth-round pick Anthony McFarland Jr., who played in 11 games as a rookie but totaled just 33 carries for 113 yards, plus six receptions for 54 yards and one touchdown.
But according to Mark Kaboly of The Athletic, in 2021 McFarland figures to be the “two” in Pittsburgh’s “one-two punch” at running back, the main complement to Najee Harris.
“McFarland has shown the most promise of all the [backups],” writes Kaboly. “He fits into Matt Canada’s scheme, which is a plus, and his running abilities are notably better than a year ago. Kalen Ballage has been a pleasant surprise, but he has a similar style as Harris.”
McFarland had just three carries for nine yards against the Cowboys, but should get more opportunities as the preseason moves along, as the Steelers figure to use Harris less—not more—as the regular-season approaches.
Wide Receiver Mathew Sexton
Last but not least, there’s rookie wide receiver Mathew Sexton, a “speed, scrappy” undrafted free agent out of Eastern Michigan who has been nicknamed Cheddar Bob. With apologies to fellow rookie wide receiver Rico Bussey—who turned heads with a show-stealer of a practice in late July—it’s Sexton who has received public praise from Tomlin.
More notably, Tomlin praised Sexton for having “ignited” the team in the Hall of Fame game with his 36-yard punt return, though he did not have a reception against the Cowboys.
Earning a role as a kick returner figures to be the easiest path for Sexton to nab a roster spot, as Pittsburgh’s No. 5 (or No. 6) receiver doesn’t figure to get many targets, not on a team that already features wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and James Washington, the latter of whom has reportedly asked to be traded, thanks to a lack of playing time. Never mind the presence of receiving-oriented tight ends Eric Ebron and Pat Freiermuth, and the pass-catching talents of the aforementioned Harris.
Thurday’s contest kicks off at 7:30 p.m. ET, with the Steelers having already provided helpful direction as to all the ways you can watch or listen to the game.