Fresh off a great performance against the Philadelphia Eagles there is no time to rest. With the lockout shrinking the offseason, a typical fan is now in constant evaluation mode. Well, time to look forward to Game 3 of the preseason against the Atlanta Falcons.
Each team thus far has tested potential vulnerabilities in the Pittsburgh Steelers. First, the Washington Redskins tested how the team approaches weaker opponents. In the first game the Steelers looked past the Redskins and lost the game.
The Philadelphia Eagles tested how the defense would respond to mobile quarterbacks. The Eagles had two mobile quarterbacks—rare in the NFL—and the Steelers passed that test with flying colors. The offense was tested in the ability to deal with shut down cover corners along with a decent pass rush and the offense responded despite a depleted offensive line due to injuries in the game.
The Atlanta Falcons will provide a test similar to the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers and that is the ability to deal with spread offenses and quarterbacks who get the ball out quickly. I have no doubt they will pass this test.
I have identified nine players who will make the difference in the game and players to watch with the following list.
Coming off an offseason with multiple back surgeries and the sting of recording only one tackle in the Super Bowl, look for James Harrison to assert himself against this spread offense. Getting to the quarterback early in the game will make the difference in this game.
While the sack count may not be high due to strategic limited play associated with the preseason, hurrying the quarterback will be just as important as sacks. The stat line will not tell the story. This game will provide the perfect tune up for Harrison against the spread offense.
Troy Polamalu's mobility in the Eagles game was great. Look for more of the same and for Polamalu to play off the line. A good game against this spread offense will not be measured in sacks or tackles.
It will be measured in his ability to take away the reads and progressions of Matt Ryan. Look for Polamalu to play the middle of the field, the area the spread offense will seek to exploit and most vulnerable in a 3-4 scheme.
In the Eagles game Jerricho Cotchery displayed his route-running ability and got open for a touchdown. Against the Falcons, he will play the middle of the field and demonstrate some of the same skills and cement his role as the fifth wide receiver going into the regular season.
When Hines Ward leaves the game, stepping up and playing the middle of the field will yield dividends for this veteran receiver. This game will finally shape the roster and the receiver corps.
Keenan Lewis helped his case for a spot in the secondary during the Eagles game. He played tight coverage through most of the game and came away with an interception. This game will provide the test for him that will closely resemble the type of play that is needed out of him.
The Falcons play a spread offense and have multiple receiver threats. Picking out and shutting down one of these explosive receivers will create a starting role for him when Ike Taylor returns. The coaching staff will look favorably on having two bump-and-run corners and a series of broken-up passes along with an interception will finally make the case for Lewis.
Look for a good game out of Lewis because he is a physical cover corner and the pace of this game favors his skill set.
With Jonathan Scott and rookie Marcus Gilbert injured, stepping up along the offensive line will be needed to establish the running game earlier in the game.
Ramon Foster will be called on to stop the pass rush to the inside. The Steelers can handle the pass rush to the outside because they have a quarterback who can side step pressure and step up.
Look for Foster to establish early in the game to create a pocket to step up in. Injuries at the offensive tackle position puts added pressure on the guards. Foster’s play will be a major indicator on the flow of the game.
The Eagles game was missing one thing: the deep threat. Mike Wallace has taken it easy so far in this preseason. Look for Ben Roethlisberger to go up top and get his deep threat involved early. This will stretch the field and Wallace will break a few short yardage plays and turn them into big gains.
This will happen because opponents have to focus on the entire receiving corps. Antonio Brown is coming off a couple of good games, meaning the focus will be on him. Wallace will exploit this for big plays.
The Atlanta Falcons' spread offense gives rookie Curtis Brown an opportunity for more playing time in this game. William Gay has not shown the ability to deal with the spread offense. Look for a similar performance out of Gay.
Brown will see action in the nickel formations. These formations will simulate exactly what he will be dealing with in the regular season. Good coverage in this game will help his case for more playing time.
Pressure from the edge with James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley is key to throwing off the Atlanta spread offense. No linebacker will be more important in this game than Lawrence Timmons.
Pressure in the A gap up the middle will be the key to this game. More specifically, how Timmons manages the game and decides when to apply the pressure or drop into coverage will set the tempo for the defense.
With an injured offensive line, the best blitz control is a good running game. Short-yardage situations will set the tempo for the offense. Look for six to 10 carries for Isaac Redman. Converting a few first downs on short yardage will go a long way toward securing the coveted second running back position on the team.
His value may be judged also in the blocking schemes with an injured offensive line. Look beyond the stat sheet for this running back. Be on the lookout for another great game as well.
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