On Sunday night, in front of a national television audience, the Pittsburgh Steelers play their second preseason game of the year, hosting the Indianapolis Colts and their rookie quarterback, Andrew Luck.
Though the Steelers didn't defeat the Philadelphia Eagles last week, losing by a margin of a single point, there were a lot of positives in that game. The sped-up Todd Haley offense looked almost fully installed, the run game seemed more effective and the defense was quick and effective.
Things have changed for Pittsburgh in the days since the game. How will this effect their approach against the Colts? Read on for three things to watch for on Sunday night.
The New-New-Look Run Game
With Isaac Redman as their starting running back last week, the Steelers' ground game looked pretty good. The offensive line was providing proper protection; Redman was able to make significant progress up the middle; and, as a unit, their backs amassed a total of 131 yards on the ground.
Since that game, however, the Steelers put running back John Clay on injury waivers, and Redman has found himself sidelined with a minor hip injury.
That leaves the Steelers with just Jonathan Dwyer, Baron Batch and Chris Rainey (as well as recently acquired fullback/running back Jason Ford and fullback Will Johnson) as the running backs in this game.
Dwyer came back from a shoulder injury on Thursday and will play against the Colts, but it's Batch and Rainey projected to get the most work. Batch had just 41 yards on 19 carries last week—a disappointment he's hoping to turn around with the first team on Sunday—while Rainey was a standout, with lightning-quick speed making up for his lack of size and thus blocking ability.
With Redman, the running game's Plan B, on the shelf, the Steelers are forced into implementing Plan C. A good showing at least cements their strength in terms of depth; a bad one, and it's back to the drawing board to build a committee approach that works, even if it's just for the rest of the preseason.
What's the Offensive Line Going to Do?
Last week's starting offensive line, from left to right, was Mike Adams, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert.
This week, Gilbert will be shifted to left tackle, and Foster to right tackle. This is done out of injury necessity, however, and not a reflection of how the rookie Adams handled his assignment last week.
Adams struggled, especially in pass protection, and we all were treated to the familiar sight of Ben Roethlisberger running for his life away from pressure (and, ultimately, extending plays, as is his wont). It doesn't help Adams' development that he cannot play against the Colts on Sunday.
What should push Adams along, however, is Max Starks, who was recently activated from the PUP list. The competition for the starting left-tackle job can now begin in earnest. At some point, Adams will be the starter; whether or not that happens this year is up to him and to Starks.
Keep an eye on how well this group provides protection for Roethlisberger. This isn't the last time we're going to see a shuffling of the offensive line during the preseason as the Steelers work out their contingency plans. Considering what happened last year, the Steelers need as many workable combinations of offensive linemen as possible.
The battle for the starting left cornerback spot has basically been a two-man race this year, between Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen. As Dave Bryan at Steelers Depot points out, it looks almost certain that Lewis will earn himself the job, but there's more than just this battle to watch out for against the Colts on Sunday.
Last week against the Eagles, it was Lewis who took all of the snaps as the left cornerback; Allen only played outside when replacing starter Ike Taylor and otherwise was used as the nickel corner. Also on the roster at corner are Walter McFadden and Curtis Brown.
With Andrew Luck coming to town—he of the impressive rookie preseason debut against the Rams which saw him complete 10 of his 16 passes, for 188 yards and two scores—it looks like the Steelers corners are going to have a surprising little test on their hands.
How Lewis handles this game will either cement him as the starter on the outside or give reason for the battle with Allen to continue. Clearly, the Colts are going to be a pass-heavy offense with Luck under center, just as they were with Peyton Manning, so Lewis should be tested far more than he was last week by Vick and Mike Kafka's combined 13 pass attempts.