Steelers vs Bills: 10 Key Players, Things to Watch for Pittsburgh
When the Steelers face off against the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park this Saturday, it will be the magical third preseason contest, the best dress rehearsal for the regular season. We'll get a good look at what we can expect to see once the regular season begins in Denver on September 9th.
Here's a list of ten players and things to watch for when you tune in Saturday. Make sure to check out my live blog during the game as well for updates on how each of these things play out!
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Mike Adams and the Left Tackle Battle
Adams returned in limited action last week against the Colts, something that didn't seem likely a few days before the game. He didn’t seem to be greatly slowed by a knee injury and looked much more comfortable during the series he played.
Those series came against backups to the backups, however, so his comfort level isn’t something to be too content with right now. We need to see Adams back on the top unit against the starters and top backups to really gauge his improvement.
Adams is still vying for a starting job at left tackle, but Ramon Foster and Trai Essex, not to mention Max Starks, may be more capable and sound at this point. That will likely change by midseason, but I’m not so sure the Ohio State product is ready for the big show just yet.
The starters will get a lot of time in this game, so even if Adams doesn’t start we should get to see him with the regulars at least some of the time. Watch closely and see if he has taken a big step forward from his Week 1 debacle.
David DeCastro's Development at Right Guard
DeCastro made the start last week and actually did look like he’d taken a step forward. His blocking was more physical and he maintained leverage much better. His pass blocking has continued to progress and I feel like he’s on track to start the regular season with the starters.
Against Buffalo, I want to see his flashes of brilliance come together in a strong, lengthy performance. He still needs more time in the system before he’s fully ready, but he should be good enough to start. Now the question is how much of his draft-day potential he can fulfill in one year.
I think that this will be the perfect test too. DeCastro is facing a good defensive front that includes some of the league’s better pass rushers. If he can handle guys like that, he should be able to handle the guys he’ll be facing in the AFC North.
Toney Clemons' Development at Receiver
Clemons has shown some very interesting flashes during camp and in preseason action. He has proven he can make the acrobatic catch or even the easy one. What he hasn’t been able to prove is that he can do that with any consistency. It seems like luck more than skill at this point and I know he’s a better player than that.
Clemons hasn’t gotten a ton of attention because of the number of receivers in camp vying for one or two roster spots. That is likely to get tighter soon with cuts looming and Mike Wallace rumored to be returning for the final weeks of the preseason.
Clemons shouldn’t be among the first cuts, but he might need a good showing to avoid being part of the final round of them. Right now, guys like David Gilreath and Tyler Beiler have impressed at least a little more than he has. The time to show up big is now.
Buffalo isn’t the best or the worst pass defense in the league, but Clemons will likely be working against backups. If he can get out there, get open and get some good plays in, he might close the gap on those two guys and even put himself into solid consideration for a spot.
Chris Rainey's Health and Role
Unlike Clemons, Rainey’s spot on the roster is already reserved. His role is starting to take shape too. What originally seemed like a job as a returner has been augmented by a likely position as a top change of pace guy on offense too.
Rainey has certainly flashed the skills that made him a valued member of the draft class, but I’m also excited to see what he does in more action. He should get some time again this week against the Bills and will be facing a more set and more difficult defense.
I’m also curious to see how effective Rainey is after getting his bell rung last week. Much was made on postgame radio about his possible concussion, but it seems to have fallen out of the public eye for the moment. If he struggles or looks sluggish, we’ll get another round of questions for Mike Tomlin.
Heath Miller's Role
It’s been a silent preseason for Miller. Todd Haley hasn’t been targeting the tight ends as much as many expected and he also hasn’t seen fit to use Miller in the red zone schemes we’ve seen thus far. That’s odd, but it may simply be Haley keeping the bulk of his playbook under wraps until the regular season begins.
With the starters seeing extended time this week, it should be a good time to get a look at Miller in this system. I can’t believe he’ll avoid being a target much longer and I’m sure he wants to get in some good plays before the games start for real.
Miller will likely be a key cog, particularly in the red zone. This week will be interesting because we may finally get to see exactly what that will look like. If we don’t see it this week, we’ll probably be waiting until the regular season.
Pittsburgh's Offensive Line Handling Buffalo's Pass Rush
The offensive line has looked pretty good so far. Willie Colon seems almost tailor-made for left guard. Maurkice Pouncey looks strong and like his ankle troubles are firmly planted in the past. Marcus Gilbert looks ready for the Pro Bowl.
There are still some questions at left tackle and right guard, but even those don’t seem likely to be an issue once the season begins.
It will be interesting to see the starters against a really good pass rush. The Colts have formidable players, but most of them are learning new positions. The Eagles had some luck against the starting line, but that was the first week. This is the week we should get a good feel.
The key thing to watch for is how Gilbert and whoever is at left tackle handle Mario Williams. He terrorized the Steelers last year with Houston. If they can contain him, I’d be willing to bet they can contain anyone.
Todd Haley's Play Selection
So far, we’ve seen a big emphasis on the running game and timely passes. I don’t think that’s going to be how the offense looks all year, but at this point the receivers and Ben Roethlisberger seem game-ready. The running backs are all effective, but the roles haven’t been defined yet.
Against the Bills, I expect to see a game plan more like what we can expect during the year. There will still be more running than last season, but I think we’ll get to see some play action and some more interesting plays. The offense and defense are going to still be very vanilla. No one wants to tip their hat before the show really starts.
One thing to watch for is going to be how the offense operates near the goal line. To this point, there hasn’t been a great deal of creativity down there, but we might get to see something different this week.
Another aspect to watch is how Haley decides to mix in the tight ends and the roles in which they’ll be operating. Hand in hand with that is how he uses a true fullback during the game. I’m still not sold on the belief that he will operate with a fullback in the traditional sense.
Usage of the No-Huddle Offense
We’ve heard that a Roethlisberger favorite, the no-huddle, will be more predominant this year and that Haley will give his quarterback a great deal of say in what happens in that type of package. We’ve seen it a few times during the games so far. We will hopefully get a couple more good looks at it this weekend.
The no-huddle has always been effective for Roethlisberger because he has a good feel for how a defense operates against him and his teammates. He has shown a good grasp of the things he and Haley have come up with for it so far.
We likely won’t get a great look at the whole offense until Mike Wallace is back. I have the feeling that some of what has been designed is contingent on his participation. That can be adjusted, but we likely aren’t seeing a full picture just yet.
The Battle for Third-String Quarterback
This has developed into a surprise battle after the way each player performed during the Colts game. Batch looked inconsistent, indecisive and a bit old during his time under center. Johnson looked like a player full of youth, vigor and athleticism despite being raw.
The question for the Steelers now becomes two-fold. First, how comfortable would they feel letting Batch go? He’s a locker room leader and a coach in uniform. Those things are hard to replace for the chance that a youngster can deliver.
The second part of it is a question of how much this staff believes in the effectiveness and health of Byron Leftwich. He is now the unquestioned No. 2 quarterback despite two consecutive seasons of ill health and a throwing motion and lack of mobility that make him a liability behind any offensive line.
I can’t decide how this goes. Perhaps the team can convince Batch to retire or stay with the team in a non-roster capacity. Perhaps they can retain Johnson on the practice squad and keep Batch active as the third quarterback.
Regardless of how things all play out, it will be interesting this week and even next week to see how these players work when they’re in the game.
The Starting Cornerback Battle
The battle is still close for the starting cornerback job opposite Ike Taylor. While Curtis Brown is no longer really in the running, Cortez Allen and Keenan Lewis are neck and neck. Depending on who you talk to, one player might be slightly ahead. Either way, this race is too close to call.
In a position like this, every play is important. Last week, Allen was more effective and had a big interception off a tip that put him in front. In the first week, both players were very good. Lewis had some problems in coverage against the Colts, however. That could hurt some.
This week, both players will get significant time against a tough passing unit. If it were up to me, I’d pull Ike Taylor out and put both players on the field with the first unit. Everyone knows what Taylor can do. This is the time to test players you’re going to need going forward.
If I had to pick a winner, I’d go with Allen at this point. Lewis has done well, but he looks like a better fit at nickel given his coverage lapses last week. The fun part of this battle is that it could all change on one play or one series this week. Stay tuned.