The Pittsburgh Steelers are set to open their pre-season schedule Saturday night against the Detroit Lions. As the black and gold take to the field to kickoff their 78th season, they will seek to get back to their record setting success as a franchise.
While it’s unlikely that the first team will see more than 10-12 snaps, there is plenty to look forward to come Saturday night in Pittsburgh. Here are five things to watch closely as the Steelers take on the Lions…
Head coach Mike Tomlin has kept his cards close to his vest as to who will start the game, and it just makes it that much more interesting.
Who will start the game? Who will get the majority of the first team reps? Can anything be done to shake the current pecking order at the position?
All of these questions can only be answered come Saturday night.
At this point the first team offense is likely to see two trips down the field. One of them will be with Ben Roethlisberger at the helm, and the other with Byron Leftwich.
Dennis Dixon, who should see the majority of the offensive downs under center, will follow Leftwich, most likely giving way to Charlie Batch in the fourth quarter.
It will be interesting to see exactly how Dixon rises to the occasion, and makes his case for an opportunity at the starting job.
The offensive line in Pittsburgh is more than a question mark. It’s more like a book of riddles.
If you take away a team’s best offensive lineman, add a high-profile rookie beside the league’s worst center and a former Pro Bowler that no one else was willing to pay, what do you get?
While it seems mind boggling clues to the answer are sure to come Saturday night.
Losing tackle Willie Colon was a definite blow to a line that has been decimated by injuries over the last several years.
The Steelers have done their best to fill the gaps through free agency this off-season, but it remains to be seen if any of the meager players they brought in will be worth their weight.
The two most promising additions to the line are first round pick Maurkice Pouncey and free agent signee Flozell Adams who came over from Dallas recently.
Pouncey was a first team All-American and one of the brightest offensive line prospects in the 2010 draft.
Adams on the other hand is a five time Pro Bowler with a wealth of veteran knowledge that could prove invaluable if he can find a way to quickly assimilate to the Steelers system.
After the first team takes to the bench we will get a chance to see the progress a year has made in the game of players like Craig Urbik, Ramon Foster, and Doug Legursky.
Foster made a great showing in relief of the injured Chris Kemoeatu last season, and before the arrival of Flozell Adams had an outside chance of cracking the lineup at right tackle.
Urbik on the other hand was a third round pick last season that never earned a trip onto the field. While a great deal of high hopes have been placed in Urbik, 2011 may very well be the season he is expected to take a place in the lineup.
The Steelers needed depth at linebacker, and while most would venture to say they went a little too far with the amount of draft picks they spent this off-season, they added the depth they were looking for.
They will come into Saturday night with three new rookie draft choices at the linebacker position, and it will be Steeler Nation’s first chance to see them in live game action.
While second round pick Jason Worilds will be the focal point early on, Stevenson Sylvester
(5th round selection) and Thaddeus Gibson (4th round selection) will be just as interesting to see as they compete to make the team.
Stevenson was very productive during his three seasons at Utah. While he plays with a motor the Steelers love in their linebackers, he is small for an inside linebacker and often had trouble with bigger interior linemen on the college level.
His game is better suited to being covered up by a defensive lineman in order to avoid being engaged quickly, but that is not something he is going to find in the two-gap defense the Steelers play. How he reacts to the faster, more physical play of the NFL will be interesting to see.
Gibson, the Steelers’ fourth round pick out of Ohio State, is just as much of a project player.
While he runs well and could be considered another hybrid type pass rushing linebacker, he struggled to tackle with consistency in open spaces at Ohio State. That could prove costly in the Steelers’ defense, where the outside linebackers are responsible for outside-contain most of the time.
While both are more likely to be solid special teams contributors this season than anything else, they will both get an opportunity to show signs of things to come in Saturday’s game.
The Steelers are coming into Saturday’s game with nine receivers on the roster. Six of those receivers were not on the Steelers roster a season ago.
Aside from Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, and practice squad player turned late season active roster signee Tyler Grisham, everyone running routes for the Steelers will be a 2010 newcomer.
There are two sets of receivers in particular that should spark some interest for Steeler fans.
1) The Rookies – Emmanuel Sanders (3rd round selection) and Antonio Brown (6th round selection) are both coming in to this first game with something to prove.
Sanders is a speedster with good hands and fearlessness that most players his size do not have. It will be interesting to see how a player of his small frame and stature stands up to the physical bump coverage on the NFL level.
Sanders should also get an opportunity at some point to return a few kicks, and with his elite speed the possibility for fireworks is there every time he gets the ball in space.
Brown on the other hand is a 5’10” slot receiver with 4.4 speed that lacks the strength and size to line up on the line of scrimmage at the NFL level. This was not one of the Steelers’ better picks from a paper perspective, but it should be interesting to see what the Steelers saw in him and if he is up to the task of justifying the draft pick they spent on him.
2) The Veterans – The Steelers brought back the departed Antwaan Randle El from Washington and signed Arnaz Battle, who comes to Pittsburgh out of Notre Dame via the San Francisco 49ers.
While Randle El knows the system the big black and gold elephant in the room is whether or not he has lost a step, and what he will be capable of in the Steelers’ offense.
Battle is another tough football player to add to the Steelers stable of receivers. At 6’1”, 208 pounds, Battle is one of the bigger and potentially more dynamic receivers on the team.
He has never been a premier receiver, but he has always been a complete one. Battle has the ability to not only catch the football, but also block, and return kicks.
It is clear that the quarterbacks, especially Ben Roethlisberger, have taken a liking to Battle during workouts. It is unclear however, what his role is going to be once the regular season comes around. Whatever that role will be, we will get a glimpse of what he brings to the table for the first time Saturday night.
Rashard Mendenhall finally came into his own after a brief benching last year, and has yet to look back since.
Mwelde Moore is a solid third down back that catches the ball well out of the backfield.
After that the Steelers have a lot to find out about who can tote the rock for them, and that all starts Saturday night.
We will finally get a chance to see rookie running back Jonathan Dwyer strap it up for the first time against an opposing team. Dwyer is quite possibly the power runner the team has needed for some time, and his first steps toward proving his abilities will be against the Lions at Heinz Field.
Last year’s camp darling Isaac Redman is looking to make a statement after not making the team despite his pre-season success.
And lest we should forget, Frank Summers. The man touted “the tank” who did little more than bomb and fail to live up to the hype last year, will be looking to make his case once again this pre-season.
This particular battle may be set in stone at the top of the depth chart, but make no mistake it is going to be a battle down to the wire for every last roster spot at the running back position.