By Michael K. Reynolds
What can be revealed by the so-called “meaningless” preseason games? Actually…quite a lot.
As a huge fan of training camp I have closely observed dozens of Pittsburgh Steelers preseasons through the years. I can share there are several absolute truths you can learn from these games and here are a few of the most significant:
So much has been said about the addition of NFL Hall-of-Famer Mike Munchak to the coaching staff and the superlatives are already proving to have been well founded. What he’ll be able to add to the team in terms of physicality, attention to detail and technique cannot be understated.
But even the impressive skill set of Munchak will be limited by the core level of talent that he has to develop. At this point of the season, there is little he can do to impact the combined strength and athleticism of the offensive line. He will continue to work on technique and scheme, but the team’s overall ability to naturally “Push” their opponents at the line of scrimmage is, for the most part, where it will be for the remainder of the season.
The Push of the starters and back-ups will be clear to see in the first few games of the preseason as ones go on ones and twos go on twos. Sure, it may be a bit rough around the edges, and the holes may be inconsistent but those early line scrums will have much to say about whether opposing defenses will need to commit eight in the box during the regular season.
The Steelers offensive lines have not been winners in the preseason Push for years and years which is why there have been so many bubble screens and other gimmicky play calling in the regular season. Is this the year the Steelers will start being able to once again dominate the opposition in the trenches? You’ll know early on in the preseason.
The same holds true for the defensive line. If you want to point to one glaring deficiency in the Steelers defense last year you have to look no further than the Push of its line.
With all of the new faces on the defensive line the Push in the preseason will be one of the most important measurements of the team’s offseason progress.
SPLASH OR CRASH
The preseason is incredibly short for those players who are rookies (drafted or otherwise) or on the bubble to make the team. Their repetitions are few during camp and their opportunities are even more infrequent during the preseason games as so many players get shuffled in and out.
For a player to have a chance of making a significant dent in the roster and getting regular season playing time they HAVE to make a Splash in the preseason. Whether it’s a big punt return, an interception, or a diving touchdown reception they need to show they are a man against boys during these preseason games to be able to step up in class. You can trace the career of every great Steeler and with rare exception, they’ve flashed in preseason.
At the same token, those players who show up on the radar screen for the wrong reasons (fumbles, drops, missed assignments) will be among the first to go. It’s never a good sign if a player looks lost in the preseason because it means they either didn’t do their homework in the offseason, or they are a slow learner. If that’s the case, don’t expect to hear much from them until 2015.
So look for the Splashers and Crashers during these preseason games.
Count me among those who believe that winning in the preseason is important, especially during those times in the game when your starters are playing against the opponent’s starters.
A winning attitude isn’t something you can just turn on and off. The same goes for toughness. One of the best ways to measure a team’s toughness during the preseason (and regular season) is during special teams.
A few years back, while attending a Steelers Monday Night Football at San Francisco I observed something disturbing. During special teams there was a clear and palpable difference between the squads of the Niners and the Steelers.
The Niners couldn’t wait for the ball to be kicked off, while the Steelers seemed just anxious to get it over with. Since special teams are manned by the players of a team’s future it was a clear sign that San Francisco was on the rise and the Steelers next wave of defenders were soft.
It won’t take long into the preseason to learn a great deal about this version of Black and Gold. We already know they are fast. But are they tough?
Tune into the preseason games for your answers.