Steelers vs Bills – What I’m Watching For On Defense

The Pittsburgh Steelers are set to take on the Buffalo Bills, with whom they’ve gotten intimately familiar over two days of practice, later today in their second preseason game. Before we get there, here are some of the things that I will be focusing on in game two in response what we’ve previously seen on the offensive side of the ball.

Even though there was a missed hold involved in the play, the Steelers’ first-team defense still allowed a big explosive play against them, this time a 73-yard touchdown run. They gave up 17 plays of 40 or more yards last year.

Cameron Heyward was blown out of his gap, both safeties took poor angles on the third level, nobody had the catchup speed on the back end, and the defense as a whole failed to adjust to Eli Manning’s audible when he caught Sean Spence rushing from the left edge. There was a lot of blame to go around, but these big gashes need to be nipped in the bud.

Ryan Shazier was able to participate some in the Steelers’ last scrimmage and seems as though he’s set to make his debut after missing the preseason opener. How much will he be able to play—and how will he play? Will he be up to speed mentally?

With Steve McLendon back from his concussion, I obviously want to see how the now heavier nose tackle performs, particularly as it pertains to holding the point of attack and drawing double teams. But there are other questions I’m seeking answers to tied to his return.

For starters, Cam Thomas will presumably move back to left defensive end. But I suspect that Stephon Tuitt will take his place in the nickel defense. He has been doing that for a while now already.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Tuitt plays more than Thomas just because of how much the Steelers use the nickel. But more importantly, I want to see if the Steelers give Tuitt any snaps in the base defense with the first-team line.

Likewise, I want to see if the Steelers give Thomas any reps at nose tackle this week, or with the second-team defensive line in sub-packages. But more crucially, I will be looking to see if rookie Daniel McCullers has yet made the leap over Hebron Fangupo as the second-team nose tackle after taking a couple reps with the first-team defense.

Assuming that Troy Polamalu is playing, and assuming the Steelers use their dime package at all, I would be curious to see who is the sixth defensive back in. Frankly, it could realistically be any number of players from Will Allen and Shamarko Thomas to Antwon Blake and Brice McCain.

Last week, second-year defensive end Nick Williams played as the third-team left end behind Tuitt and rookie Ethan Hemer, but most believe that Williams outperformed him. With Thomas moving back to left end, both have been knocked down a rung, but assuming a third line even plays at all, who gets the snaps? The one who doesn’t will likely be cut soon.

If Jarvis Jones doesn’t participate, how will the division of labor be split up at the first-team right outside linebacker position? Chris Carter has for the most part been the second-teamer at that spot, but Arthur Moats is believed to be the third man on the depth chart.

There’s also the prospect of some possible playing time with the first-team defense for undrafted rookie Howard Jones, who had himself a nice day a week ago, even if he is raw.

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