The Pittsburgh Steelers make their preseason home debut on Sunday Night Football against the Indianapolis Colts, and while many eager fans will excitedly await the first opportunity to view the team amidst a welcoming Heinz Field crowd, almost as many are surely salivating to witness rookie quarterback Andrew Luck baptized by his first real dose of NFL fire.
Nobody doubts that the kid is destined for greatness. In fact, Steelers fans know something of greatness as it concerns the No. 12. In the case of Luck, preseason or not, nobody in Steeler Nation wants Heinz Field to become the second site for Luck's prelude to prestige. Instead, loyal Steeler fans hope this game serves as giant pothole in his path to success.
Through one week on paper, the matchup between the touted "kid out of Stanford" and the vaunted Steelers' defense seems quite parallel.
Last week, the Men of Steel had an excellent defensive showing from their starters, controlling the line of scrimmage, holding Philadelphia to paltry yardage before halftime, snuffing out Michael Vick, and controlling the line of scrimmage. Particularly promising was the play of nose tackle Steve McLendon, who suddenly appears the most viable option for the team at a keystone position that begged so many offseason questions.
Not to start blaring sirens after a lone preseason contest, but a solid 10-for-16 passing effort was backed up by 188 yards and two touchdowns. The newcomer on the NFL quarterbacking block left the game unscathed, suffering nary a sack or turnover while averaging over 10 yards per attempt.
Further, an eerily similar start for the current Indy signal-caller to its former great awed fans, as both Peyton Manning and Luck turned their first throws into touchdowns. Marvin Harrison executed the score on behalf of Manning, while Luck's good fortune came courtesy of a well-executed screen to Donald Brown.
One key difference has to be recognized as it concerns the success of both units that face off in their second exhibitions: the circumstance and the competition.
Nobody confuses preseason Week 1 with any regular season assignment, so that goes without saying. However, shutting down the Eagles' talented offensive roster is enormous potatoes compared with finding a rhythm against the St. Louis Rams defense.
Sadly, not everyday can be easy street strolling down Ram Road. And, a few notable issues could render themselves much more clearly against the Steelers than versus St. Louis.
The first deception on the statistics sheet is Luck's support along the offensive line. While Luck did not suffer a sack, this was not due to sublime play by his offensive line. Frequently engineering ways to avoid pressure, including using his legs to get outside of a few collapsing pockets, Luck found himself dangerously close to Rams' pressure throughout the evening. Luckily, the young field general showed some smarts, knowing when to throw the football away to preserve yardage.
However, the Colts offensive line did a reasonable job—at least better than advertised—of supporting their quarterback in the running game, blocking decently enough for 116 yards across a committee of running backs including Vick Ballard, Darren Evans, Delone Karter, and Deji Karim. A balanced offense will be critical if Luck has any hope of engineering a turnaround in Indiana.
Unfortunately, Luck isn't dealing with a lesson in "swatting flies," which is the equivalent to facing a Rams' defense that ranked 22nd and 26th in yards and points against last season—a unit that clearly still needs a lot of overhaul.
This week, the buzz-worthy quarterback will be handling a beehive, both as it concerns the Steelers' defense and the boisterous NFL road crowd.
Nevermind that the Steelers black and gold colors are the same as a yellow-jacket, or that the team is equally capable and ready to sting! The first challenge for Luck will be deciphering the intentions of two men, a pair of particularly pesky "yellow-jackets," who will both have Canton's yellow jackets before too long.
Dick LeBeau, whose defenses have a rampant history of success against young signal-callers, already has his bust in the Hall of Fame. The saving grace for Luck is with the time of season, when many coaches aren't willing to deliver their full goods in an effort to keep their opening opponents blinded from their intentions when the games truly count. However, with an energized home crowd in full throat and pride still at stake—even in a "meaningless" game—the defensive mastermind will surely have a few unsavory wrinkles to throw at the heralded face of tomorrow's National Football League.
Troy Polamalu will get to Canton, Ohio, someday; for now, his venture remains on the field, serving as the single greatest hybrid player of this NFL generation and frequently confusing offenses with his unpredictably successful and energizing play.
Hopefully, Luck has had plenty of time to disguise any potential snap ques, a snafu that many young quarterbacks have to practice to overcome, or else he may just meet the line of scrimmage's version to the tall building's Superman, namely Pittsburgh's own version of the "rise of Troy!"
And, if that isn't enough pressure, No. 43 is one of the best defenders in the game as it regards inferring a players' intentions just by using their eyes as a personal defensive compass!
Another factor that will not work in Luck's favor compared to his most recent outing is run-game support. While the Steelers run defense had a relative down year in 2011, at least compared to their own expectations, it was nowhere near as porous as the Rams' 152 yards per game surrendered at nearly five yards per clip! Pittsburgh, a team suffering from injuries and the declining play of an aging nose tackle, still ranked among the top 10 NFL teams in yards per rush against.
Much as expected, St. Louis performed horribly in their first showing in all phases of the game. The Steelers' starters performed admirably, and this season they enter play with a more solidified and consistently healthy trio of hogs upfront—Brett Keisel, "Ziggy" Hood, and the surprising Steve McLendon. McLendon is in the shape of his life, silencing doubters like myself who questioned if he could stand up to the rigors of a 16-game NFL schedule while performing at the level of "Big Snack" near his prime.
The body of work is still small, but so far, it is impressive. It is no secret that the Steelers gave up 100-yard rushing efforts last year for the first time in a long while, but those were surrendered to premiere backs—Ray Rice and Steven Jackson. Suffice it to say, the Colts will not be able to use the run game as an able crutch for slowly working Luck into a volatile road game experience, even with the Steelers missing James Harrison and Jason Worilds and swapping linebackers such as Chris Carter and Stevenson Sylvester in and out of the lineup.
Vick Ballard may have turned heads running the football in his first exhibition affair, but a revved up Steelers' defense will not allow an encore performance.
Expecting the Colts' offense to be forced into later and longer downs and distances, Reggie Wayne (targeted only once in their first game), Austin Collie, and Donnie Avery will need to win key battles against the Steelers' secondary for Andrew to have any chance of even coming close to duplicating last week's awe-inspiring premiere. T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazill, both rookies, caught three passes each in their first NFL action, which will certainly serve to test the replacement Steelers seeing action on Sunday Night.
With two star safeties and a solid corner in Ike Taylor, Luck will likely target the receiver matched against Keenan Lewis (or Cortez Allen) with a bit more frequency than his other downfield targets.
With the perceived pressure of playing on the road, along with the very real pressure inside the pocket, it will be interesting to see just how much aplomb the composed QB showcases; it could be a wonderful opportunity for Keenan Lewis to make the play that practically entrenches him as the second corner or Allen to make the battle for the position far more interesting.
One of the most obvious factors going against Mr. Luck is simply the venue. Heinz Field is a tough assignment for one's first NFL road game. With Terrible Towels violently torquing in the distance and boisterous fans working the larynx into a painful Monday morning screech, can the rookie and his crew stay composed, work out of the silent snap count, communicate and audible, and simply handle the pressure cooker?
If nothing else, Luck's home opener should help acclimate him to the experience. And, let's be honest—the pristine passer has played under white-hot pressure in the past. Yet, the NFL's "white hot" is a much faster flame!
Clearly, there will be far more to learn from this game than merely the progress of Andrew Luck. Other questions of intrigue include:
Will the new-look Steelers offensive line, already shuffled due to injury, hold up against a defensive front that tortured them in 2011?
Can Freeney, Mathis, and the rest of the Colts defense successfully transition to a 3-4 scheme?
How is the new Steelers offense under Todd Haley developing?
What similarities and differences will exist between Arians' offense in Indianapolis compared to that which he ran in Pittsburgh?
How will Chris Rainey and Baron Batch be showcased, particularly considering the injury situation affecting the teams' running backs?
These questions will continue to be answered as the preseason progresses. Yet, entering Sunday night, no question will draw as many viewers or evoke as much fan intrigue as the popularly asked:
How will Andrew Luck fare against the Steelers defense? Or, translated, can he do it again?
Nobody is expecting Mr. Luck's "luck" to entirely run out. The top draft pick has all of the intangibles to becoming the next great quarterback, the type of seamless transition that is reminiscent of Joe Montana's torch being carried by Steve Young, whether he would admit it or not (perception is reality).
Yet, even the best have a learning curve. Interestingly, in his first regular season game, another Stanford superstar played the Pittsburgh Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium, finishing the contest 1-for-8 passing before leaving due to injury. In his later years, that man, whose name happened to be John Elway, recalled the memory:
He had no teeth, and he was slobbering all over himself. I'm thinking, "You can have your money back, just get me out of here. Let me go be an accountant." I can't tell you how badly I wanted out of here!
Whether Brett Keisel's beard or Lamarr Woodley's boot become the equivalent of Lambert's teeth remains to be seen, and nobody confuses the pressure of a regular season game to exhibition. Yet, even the best find out at some point that their skills are not above the NFL game so early on, even if their first outings indicate otherwise.
PROJECTED STATISTICS: 9-for-16, 84 yards, INT, two sacks...
... and a bit of the humble pie that only helps the game's best potential quarterbacks grow into its absolute greatest!