The Pittsburgh Steelers will take on the Buffalo Bills in their third preseason game Saturday night in Buffalo and the third game is usually used as a dress rehearsal prior to the start of the regular season. There are still a few roster spots left to be claimed and several other things to pay attention to throughout the night.
As we do every week, here is a list of 10 things to watch for in the game as the Steelers look to advance their preseason record to 2-1 on the road.
Maxing Out Left Tackle – Against the Bills we will finally get so see Max Starks take his first reps at left tackle after finally being removed from the PUP list 11 days ago. Starks will be the third starting left tackle in as many preseason games for the Steelers after rookie Mike Adams literally sacked his opportunity at the starting spot in the first preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles and right tackle and Marcus Gilbert was given the chance to work on his position flexibility last week against the Indianapolis Colts. Starks has reportedly had a good week of practice and is ready to show that he can hold down the blindside until Adams proves worthy of the spot. The two biggest challenges for Starks, who tore his ACL in the AFC Wild Card game last year against the Denver Broncos, will be playing his first game back on the field turf of Ralph Wilson Stadium, which is known to be hard on the knees, legs and feet. Because of that reason, Starks might not be asked to play a full half like the rest of the starters. Starks also only has a short time to build up his cohesiveness with new left guard Willie Colon, who made his first start at his new position last week against the Colts.
Is Isaac Hip Enough To Play? – Running back Isaac Redman sat out the game last week against the Colts with a hip injury and all signs point to him being able to suit up Saturday night to test it out. Redman has just 5 carries for 14 yards in the preseason and has played only 11 snaps. With fellow running back Jonathan Dwyer breathing down his neck, Redman will likely want to get back in action and show that he is the unquestionable starting running back on the team until Rashard Mendenhall is ready to return to action full time from his knee injury.
First Team O – Head coach Mike Tomlin said during his Thursday press conference that the first team offense figures to play at least a half in this game and his eyes, along with ours, will be focused primarily on execution. Through the first two preseason games quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has attempted just 17 passes, so it would not be out of the question to see him attempt to go down field more against the Bills after the offense has primarily worked on the short passing game and use of the running backs in the first two games. In fact, running back Chris Rainey leads the team in receptions with 5 and tight end Heath Miller hasn\’t registered a catch yet. That figures to change on Saturday as the receivers and tight ends figure to be the primary focus in this game. The Steelers have not been good thus far inside the red zone and in goal to go situations, so they must show that they can score touchdowns when driving deep instead of settling for field goals.
Gilreath Act II – Wide receiver David Gilreath had a strong showing in his first preseason action last week against the Colts after sitting out the first game against the Eagles with a minor foot problem. The Wisconsin product registered 4 catches last Sunday night for 78 yards and all 4 came on 3rd down and moved the chains. Gilreath figures to get quite a bit of time Saturday night in the second half to show that his first showing was not a fluke. In addition, he could get some more looks as a return man, especially on kickoffs. There are still questions as to how many wide receivers the Steelers intend to keep on the 53 man roster, but if they wind up keeping 5, Gilreath can secure that spot Saturday night against the Bills.
Special Amos – Out now is Al Everest as the Steelers special teams coach was fired on Thursday. In now is Amos Jones, who Tomlin hired to be the assistant special teams coach when he arrived in 2007. The return game has been below the line through the first two preseason games and it will be interesting to see what changes Jones makes Saturday night. We have yet to see Emmanuel Sanders, who was told heading into the offseason that he would be the return man this year, so that might be something to keep our eyes peeled for. Also expected to get shots once again will be Rainey, Gilreath and Marquis Maze. The third preseason game is usually regarded as the tune-up game, so watch the first sets of players sent out on kickoff and punts as that could be a small hint of who might have the edge for the final few roster spots up for grabs.
One Trick Pony Versus Ivy? – Undrafted free agent linebacker Adrian Robinson has had a great training camp and preseason thus far, but apparently Tomlin thinks of him as a one trick pony that can only get after the quarterback. That one trick has been mighty impressive for the Temple product who took to Twitter on Monday to share his dislike of being given that tag by the Steelers coach. The Steelers starting defense figures to play the first half, so the amount of playing time that Robinson will get Saturday night remains unclear. Will Tomlin give him looks with the second team at the left outside linebacker spot this week, or will Mortty Ivy once again get that nod for a second week in a row. Regardless of the playing time that either of the two players get, making their mark on special teams is paramount. Last week against the Colts it was Ivy that provided a splash play with a blocked punt. As good as Robinson has played on defense, he has yet to flash on the all important special teams phase, an area of his game that Tomlin reportedly hasn\’t been impressed with thus far.
Second Fullback – We know that Will Johnson will be the primary fullback in the Todd Haley offense, but what happens should he go down? I was hoping Jason Ford would get a look at the position this week, but he stayed back in Pittsburgh with a bad hamstring. Jamie McCoy did not look good in his few opportunities at the spot last week, so it will be curious to see if the newly signed Justin Peelle, who saw limited action against the Colts at tight end in his first action, gets a shot in the backfield, or if tight end Leonard Pope is the man to see some snaps there. As much as it appears that Haley intends to use a fullback in his offense, it is unsettling to still not know who the second option is at that position.
Sack Exchange – The Steelers defense has recorded just two sacks in two preseason games with nose tackle Steve McLendon having one against the Eagles and LaMarr Woodley having the other last week against the Colts. This has to change heading into the season as we don\’t want to see a repeat of last year. Sure the defense is still without James Harrison, but there is no guarantee that he will be ready for the opener. His backup Jason Worilds also remains a huge question mark right now, so both Woodley and Chris Carter need to start ramping up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks from the outside for the first team defense. On the flip side, the Steelers offensive line has allowed 10 sacks in the first two games. While a good chunk of those have been allowed by Adams, keeping Roethlisberger upright is a must this season behind a rebuilt offensive line.
Golden Opportunity? – Like Robinson, undrafted safety Robert Golden has looked good late in preseason games thus far. The decision to keep 4 or 5 safeties for the opening game will be the difference if either he or Damon Cromartie-Smith make the final 53 man roster. As is also the case with Robinson, the starting defense figures to play the entire first half and the second team defense figures to take over at that point with Ryan Mundy and Will Allen expected to see a good amount of playing time at the safety spots. How much time on defense Cromartie-Smith and Golden will see in this game is unknown, but both should get chances to make their mark on special teams, and that will be worth paying attention to in itself.