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Redskins vs. Steelers: What to watch for

Here's what I'll be watching when the Redskins host the Steelers at 8 ET tonight (ESPN/Watch ESPN):

QB Kirk Cousins: He was effective and efficient versus Tennessee in the preseason opener, but he was facing a vanilla defense. How will Pittsburgh approach him? The Steelers’ 3-4 defense is always one of the NFL’s best, even when they lose key players, because of the preparation and continuity of the system (it’s also an aging defense). The Titans have a new coordinator and a few key additions. It’s hard to imagine the Steelers will present many exotic looks, but they will present a good challenge. How will Cousins handle them? He has looked comfortable and confident all summer. He’ll play the first half; it’s uncertain how long the Steelers’ starters will play. There’s still uncertainty over Robert Griffin III’s availability for the season opener, so Cousins’ growth is crucial (and, thus far, evident).

Running back Chris Thompson: He said he will play Monday night and return kickoffs. He is far from ready to field a punt in a game, but kickoffs could be a way for him to earn a spot. Thompson has been quiet during camp, either because of his knee -- and having to sit out -- or because it can be difficult for running backs to flash during workouts when there’s no live tackling. He showed electric moves in college. Can he do the same in the NFL? The Redskins' coaches were excited about him before camp.

Backup running backs: Not just Thompson, but Roy Helu and Evan Royster, too. Helu had a good first game, though his best carries occurred versus backups -- he was too fast to the hole early in the game. But what he did well was show his quickness, which should be a weapon as a third-down back. Will he get more than the yards that are available? Is he running with his pads a little lower from scrimmage? Royster, right now, has to be considered the third back on the depth chart. He can do a little of everything. The problem for him is running behind a weak offensive front.

The backup offensive line: The coaches like how second-year linemen Tom Compton and Adam Gettis have progressed, though they have yet to do anything in a real game. But both have shown signs of growth. Josh LeRibeus, on the other hand, needs to start showing a lot more. The Redskins say they like their depth up front. Is that confidence justified? More needs to be seen.

Backup tight ends: Niles Paul and Jordan Reed in particular. Paul is coming off a good camp -- I remember just one dropped pass in practice. Reed showed flashes of his athleticism almost every day; sometimes the signs were obvious (twisting catches) and sometimes subtle (fakes on routes over the middle). The better these two progress, the more the offense eventually will open up.

The secondary: The Steelers reportedly will play their starting offense about one quarter, though the line might stay in longer. Pittsburgh lost Mike Wallace, but still has quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and receiving threats (such as Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Markus Wheaton) to provide a good test for rookies David Amerson (corner) and Bacarri Rambo (safety) and second-year corner Chase Minnifield. It would be good for Rambo to be tested with his angles in run support, too. Just to see what he’s learned. The more these players see in games, the better.

The defense: I’ll continue the last graph to include the entire unit. There is concern here, in part because of the secondary -- with key players missing time and young guys in key roles. I’d like to see better play from the backup inside linebackers; depth here is a concern. Pittsburgh will present a good, balanced test for this group. There are reasons to think the defense can be better, including an improved rush thanks to Brian Orakpo's return. This will be a good test for the defense.

Special teams: Really, this is more about the coaches as former Redskins special-teams coach Danny Smith comes to town (his group had a rough outing last week). Minus Smith, the Redskins’ practices aren’t as loud, at least during special-teams work. But his replacement, Keith Burns, has proved to be demanding and a stickler for detail.

Defensive end Phillip Merling: He had a good showing in the opener and has pleased the coaches with his work in practice, though most of that work has come against backups (often LeRibeus). Merling has a chance to win a roster spot in part because of Jarvis Jenkins’ four-game suspension to open the season. The Redskins’ depth up front will be tested early.