2015 Hall of Fame Game Viewing Guide: Who, What and Why You Should Watch
Are you ready for some football?
Granted, it's only a preseason game, but Sunday night NFL junkies across America will be treated to their first taste of football when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Minnesota Vikings take the field in Canton, Ohio, for the annual Hall of Fame game.
Still, that doesn't mean there's nothing to watch, and with that in mind here's a look at everything you need to know before the first game action of the 2015 NFL season.
2015 NFL Hall of Fame Game
When: Sunday, Aug. 9, 2015
Time: 8 p.m. ET
Where: Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, Canton, Ohio
Radio: Westwood One Sports
Since 1962, the NFL has held the Hall of Fame game in Canton as part of its annual ceremonies. That first game between the New York Giants and St. Louis Cardinals more or less epitomizes preseason football.
It ended in a 21-21 tie.
Before the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the game's date varied, but since then the game has marked the first preseason contest of each new year. It also affords the two clubs involved an "extra" (fifth) exhibition game—for all the good that does.
This year's game also features the NFL team that has made the most appearances in the Hall of Fame game.
That would be the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are making their sixth appearance. Pittsburgh is 3-2 overall in Canton, while the Vikings have won twice in three tries.
What to Watch: Steelers Offense
Don't look now, but these are not your father's Pittsburgh Steelers.
A team that was once all about running the ball and defense is now an offensive powerhouse. An elite quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger. Arguably the NFL's best running back and wide receiver in Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.
And a coordinator in Todd Haley who at least one NFL personnel official (per ESPN's Jeremy Fowler) thinks could be ready for another bite at the head coaching apple.
"I think people are watching his ability to get along and adapt now," the exec said. "I don't think anyone questions his ability to coach or coordinate an offense."
Here's what to look for when the Steelers take the field on offense Sunday evening.
Who Will be Brown's Running Buddy?
After hauling in eight touchdowns despite only 26 receptions last year, the general consensus was that second-year pro Martavis Bryant would be the starter opposite Brown at wide receiver in 2015.
That plan may have hit a snag. As Fowler reported, Bryant had a procedure last week to remove an infection from his elbow. The injury isn't believed to be one that will sideline Bryant for any length of time, but it leaves his status for the Hall of Fame Game in doubt.
Enter Markus Wheaton, whom Roethlisberger touted to SiriusXM Radio (per Chris Wesseling of NFL.com) as a breakout candidate in his own right:
I want that. I want him to have that pressure because...when we're in two-wide receivers, he's our No. 2, and we're asking him to play outside. When we go three wide receivers, we ask him to move inside. So, he's playing multiple positions.
I think he's doing an amazing job of it. He's such a good kid, hard worker, and he wants to be great wherever he plays.
Roethlisberger's comments were telling, and while it would have been more interesting to observe Bryant and Wheaton on the field together, it will still be intriguing to see whether Wheaton can maintain his edge in the battle no one really thought he had a chance to win.
Turning Back the Clock
Bell may make a token appearance against the Vikings, but when the games start to count, the 23-year-old will be on the sideline thanks to a two-game suspension stemming from a 2014 marijuana arrest.
For those two weeks, the Steelers ground game will rest in the hands of veteran DeAngelo Williams, who told Dan Scifo of the Associated Press that he views himself as much more than just a backup in his first season in the Steel City.
I'm ready to carry the load for 16 games and then playoffs and then the Super Bowl. Once I get in there, my production can't drop off, and once [Bell] is out there, the production has to keep up or they're going to get somebody else in there.
The 32-year-old slimmed down this offseason in an effort to regain quickness after averaging only 3.5 yards per carry during an injury-plagued 2014.
Sunday will be our first chance to see if it worked.
What to Watch: Steelers Defense
For many years, the Pittsburgh Steelers had one of the NFL's most feared defenses, whether it was the Steel Curtain of the 1970s or Dick LeBeau's Blitzburgh teams of recent years.
However, in 2014 the Steelers checked in a so-so 18th in the NFL in total defense, and there are some big changes afoot in 2015, the biggest being the departure of LeBeau and the installation of Keith Butler as the team's new defensive coordinator.
Here's what to watch for as Butler's regime begins in Canton.
Getting After it
One of the issues that plagued Pittsburgh defensively last year was its pass rush. The Steelers were 26th in the NFL in sacks, managing all of 33 on the season.
Part of the problem? Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who was supposed to provide a big boost when he was drafted in the first round in 2013, has been a major disappointment to this point. So much so, in fact, that Dave Bryan of Steelers Depot reported (via Fox Sports) that the ageless James Harrison may start ahead of Jones this year:
To be honest with you, we tried to do it the other way a couple years ago with Jarvis, and it was tough for him. So, we'll put the older guys in and let those other guys play a lot and see how things go for a while. And we're hopeful that our young guys will come along and be the top guys. And we're going to play all of them because we don't want them out there dying on the vine on us rushing the passer all of the time.
The Steelers went the outside linebacker route in the first round again this year with Kentucky's Bud Dupree, and it will be interesting to see both how Butler rotates his outside linebackers and what sort of pressure they can—or can't—generate.
The departure of LeBeau isn't the only loss of a long-time stalwart the Steelers defense will face this year. The team also bid adieu to strong safety Troy Polamalu, who now begins his five-year wait for induction into Canton.
The general consensus appears to be that Shamarko Thomas has the inside track to take over for Polamlau at strong safety, and Jason Garcia of Fox Sports wrote recently that Thomas is one of a handful of Steelers facing a make-or-break 2015:
Thomas has big shoes to fill this year as Troy Polamalu's heir apparent at strong safety. The first thing he needs to do is be able to stay in his own shoes, so to speak, as Thomas has battled one injury after another during his two seasons in the league. He missed out on several opportunities for seasoning last year when Polamalu was injured himself, and Thomas ended up playing just three defensive snaps all season while relegated to special teams.
Unfortunately, Thomas is already nicked up this summer, as are many of the Steelers' safeties, making the back end of the defense a potentially glaring weakness in 2015.
What to Watch: Vikings Offense
At first glance, the Minnesota Vikings' ranking of 27th in the NFL in total offense in 2014 might not inspire much in the way of confidence for the upcoming campaign.
However, given that the team was without the services of tailback Adrian Paterson for almost all of the season and led by a rookie quarterback for much of it, things aren't as bad as they seem. Especially when you consider that Teddy Bridgewater made significant strides under center as the year wore on.
We probably won't see much of Bridgewater on Sunday night (a series or two), but here are a couple things to watch for when the Vikings offense takes the field.
The 'Return' of Adrian Peterson
It's par for the preseason course that one of the biggest storylines for Sunday's game involves a player who will spend it watching. But Peterson himself told ESPN's Ben Goessling that he's unlikely to take the field until Week 1, when the Vikings open the regular season against the San Francisco 49ers.
"I've been doing it for a long time," Peterson said. "I kind of grew out of trying to play in the preseason. Might as well throw all your marbles out there when it really counts."
Of course, that won't stop the running back's return from exile from being one of the most talked about topics of conversation during the telecast. And with good reason. If the Vikings are going to make a big leap forward offensively in 2015, it's going to be because of the 30-year-old and the balance he can help the team achieve on that side of the ball.
Cordarrelle Patterson's Role and Growth
After showing electrifying talent with the ball in his hands as a rookie, big things were expected from Patterson in 2014. Instead, he was essentially a non-factor, averaging only a couple catches per game and scoring a single receiving touchdown.
However, head coach Mike Zimmer insisted to Michael Rand of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that the talk of Patterson as a first-round bust is premature:
So far he's doing well. So far he's done well. These two days he's been impressive. Today is a new day; we'll see how he does today. I'm hopeful that today is just as good as yesterday, and yesterday was as good as the day before. I don't know that he has turned the corner yet, but he is definitely kind of rounding it.
With Mike Wallace now in town, there's a camp competition looming at the other receiver spot between Patterson and Charles Johnson, who was the team's second-most dependable receiver after Greg Jennings a year ago. If Patterson is going to win that battle, he needs to impress when given chances just like this.
What to Watch: Vikings Defense
The Vikings offense struggled in 2014, but despite more than a few injuries, the Minnesota defense fared pretty well in its first year under head coach Mike Zimmer, ranking 14th in the NFL.
That may not quite be up to the standard of the Purple People Eaters of old, but it's a start.
With that mind, here are some things to look for as the Vikings attempt to build on that positive momentum.
The Man in the Middle
Generally speaking, first-teamers see very little playing time in the Hall of Fame game. There are some exceptions, though. Like if that first-teamer will be seeing the first game action of his NFL career.
That's the case for rookie second-round pick Eric Kendricks, who is the presumptive starter at middle linebacker for the Vikings. The former UCLA star and younger brother of Mychal Kendricks of the Philadelphia Eagles told John Holler of Viking Update that he still has a lot to learn:
I'm starting to pick up concepts and run plays, reacting a little quicker to things I see. But at the end of the day, I'm still making a lot of rookie mistakes. My alignments are showing a little improvement every day, but I've still got a lot of work to do.
That learning curve could mean some additional playing time Sunday night.
It will also be interesting to see which two linebackers take the field in the nickel package, which has almost become the de-facto base defense in today's pass-wacky NFL. Will it be Kendricks and fellow youngster (and UCLA alum) Anthony Barr, or will the experience of veteran Chad Greenway win out?
Waynes and Means
Zimmer cut his NFL teeth as a defensive backs coach with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990s. Since then, he's developed a reputation as something of a cornerback whisperer.
As ESPN's Ben Goessling reported, though, there wasn't much whispering going on when rookie Trae Waynes (the No. 11 pick in the 2015 draft) took the field at Vikings camp:
First-round pick Trae Waynes is Zimmer's newest pupil, getting an earful of instruction from the coach during the Vikings' first padded practice on Tuesday as his mother Erin snapped pictures behind the end zone. Waynes is learning in much the same manner as Xavier Rhodes did last year, with Zimmer paying particular attention to the rookie's movements and peppering Tuesday's practice with coaching points in staccato.
The learning curve for Waynes is even steeper, thanks to the Vikings' decision to continue the rookie's indoctrination at slot cornerback. It's possible the 6'1" Waynes will never play there, but with Jabari Price suspended for the first two games of the year, it's equally possible the Vikings could need another corner who can step inside.
In Waynes and Xavier Rhodes, the Vikings hope to have settled on a duo of cornerbacks that will roam the team's secondary for quite some time. But, Zimmer has shown with the likes of Barr and Cordarrelle Patterson that he won't throw young players to the wolves until they're ready.
Where and when Waynes plays against the Steelers will go a long way toward demonstrating how ready Zimmer feels the youngster is.