Steelers Versus Giants – What I’m Watching For On Defense

It’s been more than half a year since the Pittsburgh Steelers played a game of football, but that changes tonight against the New York Giants. The team has undergone a lot of changes since the end of the 2013 season, so here are some of the things I will be curious to see when it comes to the defensive side of the ball in the preseason opener.

For starters, who plays has a lot to do with what I’m watching for. It doesn’t sound like either Steve McLendon or Ryan Shazier will be a go for tonight. Cameron Heyward seems as though he will be back after missing most of the last two days, while Jarvis Jones seems to have a chance, but how long would either play?

McLendon’s concussion has forced us into including Cam Thomas in the backup nose tackle discussion. Even though he’s projected to begin the season as the starting left defensive tackle, he has been running first-team nose tackle with the starter out.

Where do the Steelers start him tonight, and can this be read as a sign of things to come if the same situation arises in the regular season? We probably won’t be able to answer that by the end of the night, of course, but it’s a question to keep in mind going forward.

One big issue that may not be receiving as much attention as it should, I believe, will be how frequently the Steelers go to their sub-package. Why is this so significant? Because it could very well affect who makes the roster.

For example, undrafted free agent defensive end Josh Mauro has been running higher-value reps with two down linemen sets as opposed to where he plays in the base package. If the Steelers figure to run in excess of half of their defensive snaps with two linemen again this year, that could improve his chances of making the roster, while perhaps hurting the chances of somebody like Brian Arnfelt. Alternatively, it could persuade them to carry seven instead of six linemen.

Of course I’m looking forward to seeing Sean Spence play in an actual football game for the first time in two years. But more specifically, I’m looking forward to seeing him out in coverage. I’m not too worried about him going forward in the run-and-hit department, nor do I have concerns about his football instincts.

Assuming that Stephon Tuitt starts at left defensive end, I will be watching for his gap integrity, and how he and Jason Worilds are able to work together. It often seemed as though Worilds was at his best when he had Heyward shielding him on the left side. This could be a factor in how soon he gains the coaching staff’s trust.

I don’t expect to see much in the way of exotic packages to open the preseason, even though Dick LeBeau seems to have been bringing out all sorts of things during practices. One thing I do hope to see, however, is Mike Mitchell coming on the blitz. LeBeau never fails to mention him by name whenever the topic of team speed comes up, nor his blitzing ability.

Can Howard Jones steal away any playing time from Chris Carter? This question will be moot if Jarvis Jones doesn’t play, because the two would figure to be the second-team outside linebackers anyway.

Similarly, where do Brice McCain and rookie cornerback Shaquille Richardson fall in the pecking order? Right now they appear to be battling for the last cornerback slot, and the veteran has clearly been ahead. Richardson needs to prove that he can be physical, but he also must be a force on special teams.

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