The Pittsburgh Steelers open the preseason against the New York Giants Saturday night. Here are six things to watch for as two legendary franchises do battle.
There is a lot to look for against the New York Giants when it comes to the offense.
While there were improvements in the offense last season, the Steelers still failed when it came to putting up points on the board. Todd Haley brought about a lot of positive changes to the scheme, but it wasn’t enough and adjustments had to be made.
One of those changes has been more deep passes.
Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders have proved to be effective deep threats, but several of these long passes have gone against players such as William Gay and Josh Victorian.
The Giants will provide a stiff test as the Steelers test out their deep-passing game.
That does not mean the Steelers will discontinue throwing the ball short. That will still be a major part of the offense, and Saturday will test the timing between Roethlisberger and his receivers.
With several new weapons, everyone has to be on the same page or else there will be a significant number of incomplete passes due to miscommunication. This may be particularly evident with rookie receiver Markus Wheaton, who is still learning the offense.
As intriguing as the passing game is, all eyes will be on the ground game.
The Steelers have implemented elements of the outside zone-blocking scheme and have three running backs vying for a starting job.
Not only should you watch for how the offensive line has developed under new coach Jack Bicknell Jr., but also note which running back is best suited for this scheme.
Throughout training camp, rookie Le’Veon Bell has been outstanding. Saturday will be his first true test.
The Steelers have failed to generate an effective pass rush for two straight seasons. They do not want to have that problem this season.
LaMarr Woodley appears to be in great shape and has impressed linebacker coach Keith Butler.
If the Steelers expect to pressure the quarterback, Woodley will have to be a big part of that. He is now the top pass-rusher on the team and has to live up to that status.
On the right side, Jason Worilds is replacing James Harrison and is going to have to produce. The Steelers have already lacked production from the right side given Harrison’s injury problems in recent years, but he was still recognized as a threat each week.
The same cannot be said about Worilds.
He has had a solid, but unspectacular training camp and didn't demonstrate the ability to get to the quarterback on a consistent basis in 2012.
At some point, the defense has to rely on more than just scheme to create sacks. Woodley and Worilds have to win their one-on-one matchups to create pressure.
Besides these two, we will have a chance to see which other players emerge as pass-rushing threats. Whether it is a linebacker or a defensive lineman, the Steelers need players who can get to the quarterback.
Two first-round draft picks and two second-round draft picks later, the Steelers finally have the talent to have an excellent offensive line. They are strong and athletic, and Jack Bicknell Jr. has been working hard to develop them in the outside zone-blocking scheme.
Mike Adams will start at left tackle and Marcus Gilbert on the right side as these two players try to solidify their starting position.
Adams struggled at left tackle as a rookie. He has looked much better in training camp. However, he has not faced an elite pass-rusher yet. He had trouble with speed rushers in the past and has to overcome this issue if he is going to be an effective left tackle.
Gilbert is in a bit of a predicament. He may find himself on the bench to start the year if he does not perform well in the preseason.
Kelvin Beachum is very talented and has been very impressive at multiple positions during camp. Do not be surprised if Beachum gets some work with the rest of the starters at some point during the preseason opener.
Besides the battle for the starting spots, the overall effectiveness of the line will be a key this season.
The Steelers have had success with poor line play in the past, but this current group has the potential to develop into one of the top units in the league.
There are four draft picks with the potential to contribute this year.
On offense, Markus Wheaton could work his way into the slot role before the season is over, and Le’Veon Bell has looked good enough to start.
Bell is the key to rejuvenating the Steelers’ running game. From everything I have seen from him far, he will achieve that. He has the speed to get to the outside and the power to run between the tackles. Once he gets his blocking up to par, he can be a three-down back.
Wheaton missed OTAs because he was still attending Oregon State. He has picked up the offense well during camp, but he's still a work in progress. He is dangerous on short passes and has the shiftiness to make defenders miss.
Defensively, Jarvis Jones is beginning to dominate the third-string tackles and needs to move up the depth chart. He still needs to develop an understanding of the defense, but playing against the Giants will provide him with the opportunity to showcase his playmaking abilities.
Another popular name in camp has been Shamarko Thomas. He has performed well. He is one of the hardest hitters and won’t have to hold back. An area to keep a close eye on is how he performs in coverage.
But don’t just watch how the rookies perform on Saturday, but also where they perform. They have been used in multiple roles in practice. We will see if the coaching staff gives them extra responsibilities in the games as well.
Earlier this week I took a look at the top training camp battles. Saturday will be the first exam.
The tackle position has shot up to the most important battle. Both the left and right tackle positions appear to be up for grabs. The performance of the offensive line will be integral to the Steelers’ success this year. This battle is of utmost importance.
On the offensive side of the ball, the rotation at running back will not matter much. Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Le’Veon Bell should all get carries with the starting offensive line throughout the preseason.
Rather than pay attention to which player gets in first and the number of carries, look at their effectiveness running behind the line. Are they able to hit the holes or make their own yards? The back with the best stats may not have been the most effective player.
The most exciting battle will come at right outside linebacker, where Jason Worilds has to hold off a hot Jarvis Jones. Saturday could be the first step to Jones being the first rookie to start on the Steelers’ defense since 2001.
Other battles to keep an eye on are at punter and depth at wide receiver, linebacker, defensive back and along the offensive line. There is an open competition for the return men as well.
Instead of breaking down each, several names to listen and watch for include wide receiver Justin Brown, linebackers Marshall McFadden and Alan Baxter, safety Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith, offensive tackle Joe Long and return man Reggie Dunn.
There is a lot of young talent on the Steelers right now, but it is unproven talent. Combine that with the lack of depth, and there are plenty of opportunities for players to stand out and make the final roster.
Making the most of their opportunities will not necessarily mean a successful night Saturday, but rather how a player handles themselves when something does not go well according to head coach Mike Tomlin, via Steelers.com.
Just how they deal with the failures is key. When you get in the stadium setting, that is one of the things we don’t know about these guys at this point. Do they wear failures? Are they capable of moving on? Do they stack negative play on top of negative play? Are they capable of moving past it?
Mental toughness and maintaining your composure are two underrated attributes that cannot be measured. They must be demonstrated through a player’s actions, especially after failure.
That is not to say a rookie can go out and look terrible against the Giants and still make the team. Instead, they may make a mistake, then go out on the next series and make a big play or simply successfully complete their assignment.
The young players will be under pressure to make an impression on Saturday. How they handle this pressure will be something the coaches evaluate.
You may not be interested in watching the fourth quarter of a preseason game, but one of those players may have to step in at some point this season or even develop into a future star.