The Pittsburgh Steelers have a series of firsts this year. They play in the first regular-season game of 2015, taking on the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. They also take on the Minnesota Vikings in Sunday night's Hall of Fame Game, the first preseason game of the year.
Here is a complete, Steelers-centric guide to Sunday night's game, which marks the first NFL action of the year since the Super Bowl.
The When and Where
The Hall of Fame Game between the Steelers and Vikings takes place on Sunday at 8 pm ET. It is played at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, a.k.a. Fawcett Stadium, in Canton, Ohio, directly behind the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The game will be broadcast nationally on NBC.
With the Steelers (and Vikings) both set to play five preseason games this year, instead of the typical four, do not expect to see many—or any—of the Steelers' starters on either offense or defense on the field for more than perhaps one series.
This will not be the time to evaluate quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's developing connection with receiver Martavis Bryant or to marvel over Le'Veon Bell's ability to dodge tackles.
There are two main goals in the preseason. First: Evaluate the bottom half of the roster. Second: Avoid as many injuries as possible. Considering these goals, starters don't play much in the preseason, let alone in the first game of five.
Head coach Mike Tomlin confirmed on Friday (via ESPN's Jeremy Fowler) that Roethlisberger, Bell, tight end Heath Miller, linebacker James Harrison, receiver Antonio Brown and center Maurkice Pouncey are among the starters who will not be on the field for Sunday's game.
It's possible that some first-teamers on both offense and defense will see more playing time than others, such as members of the offensive or defensive lines or defensive backs who simply need more reps in live-game situations. But Pittsburgh's starters who will be participating will, for the most part, be highly limited in this game.
One area to watch is the Steelers' defensive depth, both in the front seven and in the secondary. Pittsburgh's pass defense, in particular, was a weakness last year. And though we won't get a great glimpse at how it will fare in 2015 with few starters playing on Sunday, we can get an idea of the talent level they are working with based on the quality of their depth.
Can cornerbacks Kevin Fogg and B.W. Webb carry over training camp momentum to an actual game, or will Minnesota's second- and third-string receivers Stefon Diggs, Jarius Wright and Ryan Whalen be too much to handle? Will backup pass-rushers Anthony Chickillo and Howard Jones sack Vikings backup quarterbacks Shaun Hill and Taylor Heinicke or be manhandled by a third-string offensive line?
If the Steelers can disrupt the Vikings' second- and third-string passing offense, then it means they have adequate depth behind their starters, as well as the potential for competition at their respective positions if their backups play better than anticipated.
What to Watch For: Steelers Quarterbacks
Roethlisberger won't be playing more than a series, and his backup, Bruce Gradkowski, is currently on the physically unable to perform list with an injured right shoulder. That means that Sunday's game will be a showcase for the Steelers' third- and fourth-string quarterbacks Landry Jones and Tajh Boyd.
A lot is on the line here—specifically, a job. Though Jones has been the Steelers' third-string quarterback since 2013, he's shown little development, hence the team's decision to bring on Boyd in March to provide him some competition.
Though Jones has not dressed for a regular-season game in his two seasons with the team, finding a stable third-string quarterback is something the Steelers have prioritized this summer. If Jones outplays Boyd—or vice versa—the Steelers will be one step closer to determining the pecking order at the position.
It's also possible that one of the Steelers' "slash" players—or quarterbacks-slash-wide receivers—could also see time under center on Sunday. Former Boston College quarterback Tyler Murphy seems to be a more likely choice on Sunday rather than former Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner.
What to Watch For: Punting Battle
One of the bigger positional battles for the Steelers this summer is at punter, with incumbent Brad Wing trying to fend off fellow Australian Jordan Berry. But punting during practices isn't going to win this competition. It will come down to how these two perform in the preseason.
This won't just be about who punts the longest and who gives the Steelers the best field position, though. How these two handle the pressure of players coming at them while trying to block their punts as well as how satisfactorily they perform as holders for kicker Shaun Suisham will also factor in. The first real look at this competition will take place on Sunday.
What to Watch For: Running Backs
Second-string running back DeAngelo Williams will likely be held to as light a workload as the starter, Bell, because Williams will be starting in Bell's place for the first two games of the regular season. Behind the pair, though, are question marks. Who sticks on the roster and who gets cut will be solely dependent on how the rest of the Steelers backs handle their preseason workloads.
Josh Harris has occasionally stood out in camp, but he has been dinged up in recent days with a shoulder injury and has been limited most of the week. Harris' workload, if he suits up, may also be kept light for that reason.
That means undrafted rookie Cameron Stingily and recent signing Jawon Chisholm will be the Steelers' primary backs, with fullback Roosevelt Nix seeing action as well. Steelers Depot's Jon Ledyard has been impressed by what he's seen from Chisholm in practices. If he can outperform Stingily on Sunday, he'll be one step closer to sticking in Pittsburgh, whether on the 53-man roster or the practice squad.
It will also be worth watching how the Steelers use Dri Archer and seeing if he gets a glut of first-half carries. He could also spend the whole game returning kickoffs, given that the Steelers will not likely want to subject receiver Markus Wheaton to too much punishment.
A Word of Caution
Because it is the Steelers' first of five preseason games, the team will not be going full-speed, and neither will the Vikings. Though there will be tackling and sacks, neither side will want to expose too many players to the threat of injury. It's going to be hard to tell exactly who is capable of what in this initial preseason game.
There will also be players who suddenly stick out as the best on the field. But that should be taken with a grain of salt, because when second-, third- and fourth-string offenses and defenses face off, the talent level drops considerably from the starting lineup.
A fourth-string running back breaking off five-yard run after five-yard run is usually doing so against a third- or fourth-string defensive front. The true test of his skills is how he performs against a starting defensive line.
And that hypothetical back may never get that chance. Coaches know far more than we do at this point about what they have on their rosters. Some players will rise to the occasion on Sunday and earn more practice reps or a bump up the depth chart, and others will be David Gilreath.