Steelers aim for big strides against Chiefs

PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers’ preseason game against Kansas City on Saturday is the final time the regulars will play extended snaps before the start of the regular season.

They need to play well after uneven performances -- and that is putting it charitably -- in a pair of previous preseason losses. Ryan Clark went a step further when asked if there is such a thing as a meaningful preseason game -- and if tonight’s contest qualifies as one for the Steelers.

“For us it’s important because we need to generate a win,” the veteran free safety said. “Even in preseason you want to have positive vibes. You’d have those years where the Colts would go 0-4 and then win the first 12 games with Peyton Manning and you can always hope for that. But you want to get that good feeling of winning. Winning is a practice and the more you practice it the more you it the more it happens. So we want to win this game.”

Inside linebacker Larry Foote, another elder statesman in the Steelers’ locker room, doesn’t necessarily see it that way.

“I’ve been around here when we’ve gone 0-4 and had a great year,” said Foote, who is in his 11th season with the Steelers. “It’s as important as far as every time you step on the field you want to put out good play, but I ain’t stupid, I [am] a veteran. Your focus level is 10 times higher in the regular season. That’s just the way it is and the intensity is the same thing.”

I’ll split the difference and say that the Steelers don’t necessarily have to win tonight but need to play considerably better than they did against the Giants and Redskins. It isn’t that they lost those games that stuck out but rather how they played.

Indeed, the Steelers have been penalized 15 times in two games and committed four turnovers. In a 24-13 loss at Washington on Monday night, the Steelers were just 1-of- 13 on third down. What really irked coach Mike Tomlin about that abysmal conversion rate: four penalties on third down negated plays that would have moved the chains.

“We’re running out of time in terms of preparation for the regular season,” Tomlin said, “and some of the sloppiness that has dogged us through the first two preseason games – being highly penalized, turning the ball over – have to disappear and disappear quickly.”

Here are three things to watch in tonight’s game, one in which starters on both sides of the both are expected to play at least the first half:

1. Running back situation: The latest turn came Friday when the Steelers traded for Felix Jones, and it will be interesting to see how Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer respond to that. Jones is unlikely to suit up against the Chiefs but his presence is a reminder to both that the Steelers weren’t comfortable standing pat while rookie Le’Veon Bell recovers from a mid-foot sprain.

Dwyer and Redman are still the top candidates to start while Bell recovers from the injury that figures to sideline the former Michigan State star for at least the first quarter of the regular season.

One of the two, however, could be the odd man out of the running back-by-committee approach the Steelers will use in Bell’s absence. They have similar running styles, and the Steelers may prefer to use the speedy Jones as a complement to Redman or Dwyer with LaRod Stephens-Howling serving as the third-down back.

2. The offensive line: It is critical this group plays well after it struggled every which way in the loss at Washington.

Every starter except for left guard Ramon Foster had a penalty against Washington, and the Redskins’ front was simply more physical than the Steelers’ offensive line. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has given the line a vote of confidence, and playing well against the Chiefs would go a long way toward the unit taking some momentum and confidence into the regular season.

The Steelers game-planned for the Chiefs, and right tackle Marcus Gilbert said that should help the line since it studied tendencies of Kansas City’s defense and also identified strengths and weaknesses of the Chiefs’ individual players.

Foster said the line will play with more of a sense of urgency than it did at Washington.

“We’re going in this thing as if it’s Week 1,” he said.

3. The ongoing Jason Worilds/Jarvis Jones competition: Right outside linebacker appears to be the only starting job on defense that hasn’t been settled. Credit Jones, the Steelers’ first-round pick last April, for making his presence felt whenever he has played -- whether it is in practice or in games.

The former Georgia star has recovered a fumble and caused a fumble in two preseason games. He played extended snaps with the first-team defense on Monday night, and Jones later said he didn’t expect to get as much time as he did with the starters.

That does not mean Jones has moved ahead of Worilds or that the latter has fallen out of favor with the coaches. Worilds, a former second-round pick who is in the final year of his contract, is still the favorite to open the regular season as the starter. But if Jones continues to progress, he and Worilds figure to share time at right outside linebacker with Worilds also spelling LaMarr Woodley at left outside linebacker.