The New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers will each open up their preseason schedules when the two franchises meet at Heinz Field for the first Saturday Night Football game of the 2013 preseason.
For both clubs, the night will mark the start of what hopes to be a rebound year following disappointing finishes in 2012.
Despite a 6-2 start, the Giants missed the playoffs after finishing 3-5 over the final eight games. A loss to the Steelers in November began the second-half slide, but Pittsburgh actually fared worse to close 2012. After beating Kansas City in Week 10, the Steelers went 2-5 to finish 8-8—good for third in the AFC North behind both Baltimore and Cincinnati.
But with a new season comes hope that failures of the past will be replaced by the successes of the present. The Giants and Steelers both begin their respective journeys back to playoff relevance Saturday night in Pittsburgh.
Below, we preview the preseason opener for both clubs:
New York Giants Major Storyline 1: Is RB David Wilson an Emerging Star?
Gone from the New York backfield is Ahmad Bradshaw, who spent the better part of the last four years as the Giants' featured running back. He'll be playing his football in Indianapolis this coming season.
However, Bradshaw's exit from the Big Apple has likely opened the door for a potential star at the position.
As a rookie in 2012, David Wilson received just 71 carries but produced a rushing average of five yards per attempt. All but 28 of his carries came over the final four games, when Wilson put on a display that provided confidence in his ability to be New York's home-run hitting running back in 2013.
However, for Wilson to get his chance to be a big-play member of an otherwise well-stocked offense, the second-year back must prove he can handle pass-protecting duties. The departed Bradshaw was one of the best in the business in keeping Eli Manning clean last season, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
If Wilson can't be counted on to protect Manning in the passing game, the Giants will have to lean on Andre Brown in certain scenarios. But if he does prove over the course of this preseason to understand pass protection, Wilson has a real chance to be a breakout star for the Giants offense in 2013.
New York Giants Major Storyline 2: Trench Warfare
The Giants head into the 2013 season with uncertainty on both the offensive and defensive lines.
While New York added first-round offensive tackle Justin Pugh in April, the Giants will still expect to start an elder group up front. From left to right, this is an experienced but aging group (the expected starting five will likely average over 30 years old by Week 1) that can't afford injuries in 2013.
On the defensive line, New York will be without the services of ends Osi Umenyiora, who bolted for Atlanta in free agency, and Jason Pierre-Paul, who is expected to miss the entire preseason and potentially part of the regular season after offseason surgery. For the Giants to get back to the postseason, veteran Justin Tuck will almost have to reverse his recent career slide, and rookie Damontre Moore might have to provide valuable snaps as a pass-rush specialist.
The preseason opener will only provide a brief snapshot of the two units, with most of the key names only playing a few series. However, a strong start along both lines will help momentarily calm the worry over whether or not the Giants are good enough upfront to compete for a Super Bowl in 2013.
Pittsburgh Steelers Major Storyline 1: The Receivers Depth Chart
The Steelers received a minor blow Thursday when it was learned that veteran Plaxico Burress would likely miss the 2013 season with a torn rotator cuff, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.
However, Burress' injury does help clear up what appeared to be a messy depth chart at receiver.
At the top, Antonio Brown is set to be the clear No. 1 for the Steelers offense, and Emmanuel Sanders would figure to be the top candidate to start as the second option. Pittsburgh must now determine the best combination of receiving options to use behind the top two.
Rookie Markus Wheaton is an electrifying talent, but he'll have to prove in the preseason that he's ready to assume a role that is also being fought for by veteran Jerricho Cotchery. If the first-year receiver impresses, he could certainly take over a large chunk of the Steelers' slot duties in 2013.
David Gilreath, Justin Brown, Kasif Moore and Derek Moye are also legitimate roster options at receiver.
The preseason provides a perfect opportunity for young, unproven receivers to create separation on the depth chart. Expect at least one to make an impression on the coaching staff against the Giants.
Pittsburgh Steelers Major Storyline 2: Le'Veon Bell's Opportunity
With a clear objective of acquiring a back capable of handling all three downs, the Steelers used a second-round pick in April's draft on Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell. A productive runner in the Big Ten with pass-blocking and receiving experience, Bell appeared to fit the bill.
Early on in August, Mike Tomlin and the Steelers coaching staff have agreed.
According to Aditi Kinkhabwala of the NFL Network, Bell is in line to get first-team carries against the Giants Saturday night.
Veterans Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman will take the secondary carries. If Bell impresses in his NFL action, he could certainly set himself up to stay atop the the Steelers' running back depth chart to start the regular season.
The Bottom Line
After two long weeks of hitting each other in practices, both the Giants and Steelers will finally receive the opportunity to showcase their rosters against a real opponent. It's an exciting and promising time for two clubs who expect to rebound from disappointing 2012 seasons.
However, the bottom line in any preseason opener is rather simple: Both teams want to come out of a mostly meaningless exhibition without any major injuries.
If the Giants and Steelers can each accomplish that goal, while still getting a good gauge for where their rosters are at this early in camp, then both can consider Week 1 a success.
In terms of final outcome, early preseason games typically seem to ebb and flow with the talent of defensive depth. We'll take the Steelers' youngsters on defense to be slightly better than New York's, especially in a home environment.
Prediction: Steelers 23, Giants 21