Offensive tackle Andy Heck, running back Stephen Davis and place kicker Brett Conway can solidify their holds on places in the starting lineup when the Washington Redskins play the Steelers tonight in Pittsburgh in the third of their four preseason games.
The fiercest battles, however, could come among the players competing for the final spots on the roster. NFL teams must make the first of their two sets of roster cuts on Tuesday, so tonight's game will be the final chance for players facing the numbers crunch to impress Redskins coaches.
Coach Norv Turner said yesterday that the Redskins intend to trim from three place kickers to two next week. Team officials also are debating whether to release veteran offensive tackle Joe Patton, although that determination might not be made until the final roster cuts.
Turner indicated that newly acquired defensive back Tito Paul will play against the Steelers but recently signed wide receiver Irving Fryar probably will not. Most of the starters likely will play about a half tonight, but quarterback Brad Johnson could play less.
The Redskins defeated the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills in their first two preseason games, and are attempting to continue their positive buildup toward their Sept. 12 regular season opener against the Dallas Cowboys.
"The thing we have going for us now is we have some confidence," defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield said. "We just need to keep this going and have some momentum going into the season."
The Redskins seem to have their starting lineup for the regular season all but set. The final competitions have been between Heck and Patton at left tackle, Davis and Skip Hicks at running back and Conway, Cary Blanchard and Jeff Hall at place kicker. Turner acknowledged that decisions in those areas could be made final by next week.
"I think there are still some competitions in those areas but, for the most part, I feel good about where we're at," Turner said.
Turner has said all along that he would like to have his starting offensive line in place before the Sept. 3 preseason finale against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Heck will be making his second preseason start since taking over for Patton, and the veteran free agent signee could secure the job for the regular season with a good performance tonight.
"Andy played well in the first half last week," Turner said. "We'll get a feel for how he's done after this game."
Davis has outrun Hicks during the preseason, and will be making his second start in the three games.
"We're getting close [to making an official decision about the starter for the regular season] but it's a week-to-week deal," Turner said. "Pittsburgh's got a real good defensive front against the run. It will be a good test for our offensive line and our runners."
Conway is scheduled to kick in the first half tonight. Blanchard will kick in the second half, and Hall may get a chance as well. Hall, the team's sixth-round draft pick from Tennessee, seems to be in the most danger of being cut next week. The Redskins must trim their roster from 85 to 65 players Tuesday. Three of the team's six selections in April's college draft -- linebacker Nate Stimson, Hall and wide receiver Tim Alexander -- are in danger of not being on the club's season-opening roster.
Paul was acquired Tuesday in a trade with the Denver Broncos, mostly to help on special teams.
"I've told our team the last spots on the roster are going to be decided by special teams performance," Turner said. "That's been developing and taking place over the last two weeks. It'll be a good look for us against Pittsburgh. We're going to play a lot of guys. That's where guys are fighting for playing time and fighting for roster spots."
Fryar has had a week of practices since being coaxed out of retirement to sign with the Redskins. The seventh-leading receiver in NFL history says he'd like to play a quarter or so tonight. But Turner indicated yesterday he's leaning against that. A final decision will be made today, Turner said.
"My gut feeling is that we won't play him," Turner said. "He would like to play. But taking another week and then playing him for a good quarter or so in the Tampa Bay game would probably give us the best chance to get him ready to play and make sure we're not risking some kind of a leg pull."
Starting tight end Stephen Alexander and backup Kevin Pesak suffered injuries in the Buffalo game and will not play tonight, leaving James Jenkins, Mike Sellers and rookie Robert Tardio to divide the tight end duties against the Steelers. Chad Dukes will back up starting fullback Larry Centers after Larry Bowie broke his left ankle in practice Wednesday, but Sellers probably will inherit Bowie's blocking-back role once Alexander and Pesak are healthy.
The Redskins' starting defense has played well in the first two preseason games, and team officials are hoping to see more of the same. If the team's pass rush begins to falter, that could increase the pressure to sign retired defensive end Chris Doleman.
The starting offense managed only three points in the first half against Buffalo. Johnson was given a three-day break beginning last weekend to rest his surgically repaired left knee. Backups Rodney Peete and Casey Weldon will get most of the playing time tonight as Weldon tries to cut into Peete's lead in the race for the No. 2 quarterback job.
"We've played well in our first two games," Turner said. "We're not where we need to be from a continuity standpoint, but we're doing a lot of things real well. We're defending the run well. I'm pleased with some of the things we're doing in the running game. I really like the way we're able to control the football."
Redskins vs. Steelers
What: Washington Redskins (2-0) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1).
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh.
Radio: WJFK-FM-106.7, WBQB-FM-101.5, WKIK-FM-98.3, WFMD-930.
Line: Steelers by 3.