It’s been many months since the Pittsburgh Steelers last played a football game, but that changes tonight as the NFL kicks off the season with the annual Hall of Fame game. Fresh off the induction ceremonies, which included Steelers great Jerome Bettis, the winningest franchise of the modern era renews an old Super Bowl rivalry with the Minnesota Vikings.
The roster has not changed dramatically since last season, at least in terms of numbers, but there have been some significant departures, particularly in the secondary. The offense, surprisingly, is intact.
As we get set for our first glimpse of NFL football in months—albeit in the preseason—let’s take a moment to consider some of the things to be watching out for tonight.
The main storyline of this game will certainly be the opportunity to get a look at some of the younger reserves on the team. Leading the way in that regard is third-year quarterback Landry Jones, who may well play the entire game. We already know his story, so there’s no need to belabor it. This is a huge opportunity for him to prove that he belongs.
Although Maurkice Pouncey will not play, this will be a chance for Jones to work with first-team offensive linemen in the preseason, giving him, presumably, the protection necessary to show what he can do under close to ideal circumstances, though the number of skill position players unavailable to him doesn’t help.
With perhaps the Steelers’ top three wide receivers all missing the game, we’re going to get a nice, long look at players such as Darrius Heyward-Bey, C.J. Goodwin, and of course, third-round rookie draft pick Sammie Coates.
Heyward-Bey has had an up and down training camp. Just as he began to receive praise for his good work, he put together a few rough practices that reinforced the preconceived notions about his abilities. His technique will always be rough. What I’m looking for is how he runs and how many passes he catches. Jon Ledyard has written that his blocking has slacked in training camp, so I will be watching that as well.
In spite of being there all training camp last year, Goodwin never played a snap in the preseason, yet stuck on the practice squad all season. This is his time to turn all that potential we’ve heard about into action.
This is a critical opportunity for the young Coates to get in a lot of playing time, because you know it’ll be hard to come by once the season starts. He is rough around the edges, as expected, but the more he gets to work on it now, the more it will pay off later in the year.
The two young tight ends, Jesse James and Cameron Clear, should see extensive playing time throughout the game. The organization is looking at both of them closely to see if they belong.
This is also a huge game for Alejandro Villanueva. While it’s not his first NFL game, it is his first as an offensive lineman. He has literally transformed his body over the past year, and has gotten a ton of work in against his teammates. Now it’s time to take on somebody else and really test him.
Turning to the defensive side of the ball, there’s no shortage of storylines to keep an eye on. I think one of the things I’m most keen on seeing, at this point, is Cam Thomas, so see how he looks in comparison to last season. He’s now in a role more fitting to his abilities and has a year in the system. Though he may see more time at nose tackle than end in this game due to injury.
With a roster spot up for grabs the main candidates to watch for at defensive end are Ethan Hemer, Joe Kruger, and rookie L.T. Walton. Somebody from this group has to step up and separate himself over the course of the preseason.
At linebacker, the headliner is getting our first taste of Bud Dupree and that explosive first step of his. He’s been working on building his pass-rushing repertoire. How well can he put it together in his first game?
Should Jarvis Jones play, it goes without saying that he will draw a ton of focus. He has supposedly added muscle this offseason, and Alex Kozora writes that he looks stout against the run. Notching a few pressures in the passing game will be a nice treat, though.
The depth battle here at outside linebacker may be the most interesting on the roster, which is incredible not only just to think of where this position was early this offseason, but because there might not even be a spot on the 53-man roster for one of Anthony Chickillo, Howard Jones, and Shayon Green.
Second-year starters Stephon Tuitt and Ryan Shazier will be integral to what this defense can accomplish this year. That is especially true for Tuitt simply because there’s not much behind him.
In the secondary, first and foremost, I want to see if any of the dinged up starters play. If not, however, that will be a great opportunity to get Brandon Boykin a lot of work, and get it in early. Maybe it will accelerate his ascent up the depth chart.
The trio of young corners—rookie Doran Grant, B.W. Webb, and Kevin Fogg—should get the bulk of the snaps. Grant will make the roster, but Webb and Fogg could be battling for one spot. Their position versatility will be something to follow as well.
With safety being a mess, we should see plenty from rookie Gerod Holliman. Obviously, we all want to see how he plays contact football. We know he can lay in a shoulder on somebody, but that doesn’t make you a tackler.
Ian Wild may be the most interesting name in this back end group, whom I wrote about a few days ago. Alden Darby ran some first-team snaps as well. Jordan Dangerfield is back, but he didn’t get in any training camp practice. How much time will he see?
Of course, on special teams, we’re primarily looking at the return game and Dri Archer to see if he can sink his teeth into that role. We’re also looking at seeing who some of the new gunners are. With Ross Ventrone out, and likely Shamarko Thomas as well, there should be ample opportunity for playing time.