Preseason Game Primer

For most of you, the Pittsburgh Steelers are finally playing football again. We've all been waiting a long time, mulling over the breakdowns in the secondary, the almost loss to the hated Cleveland Browns, and the heartbreaking loss to the Tennessee Titans. Just seeing the Black and Gold flying around the field again will be enough.

If that's the case, don't bother reading any further. This article is for those year-round football junkies.

My passion for football and the Pittsburgh Steelers has come a long way over the last 5 years. Before I jumped into this crazy world of fansites, I doubt I could have rattled off the starting 11 on offense and defense off the top of my head. Now I can tell you which UDFAs (I believe I learned that acronym when I discovered the wonders of camp life 3 years ago) have the best shot of making the squad. Just keeping up with the ebb and flow of personnel would seem hobby enough.

But no, now I read the Players' Association website in order to understand and track the cap. I read scouting reports on college players from schools I never heard of. I'm finally beginning to dabble in the Xs and Os of the game, trying to grasp the finer points of the 3-4 and distinguishing between cover-3 and cover-2. If I had access to actual film, I don't think I'd bother sleeping anymore.

If I put half the work that I do following the Steelers into school, I'd have my Ph.D. by now.

Whatever happened to cold beer, kielbasa, and watching a linebacker cream the opposing quarterback?

Don't worry. I still do that, too.

Heck, I do all this just to keep up with the rest of you crazies out there. Work just gets in the way, along with wives, girlfriends and families. I'm sure there is a pill on the market to cure this ill, but I'm not interested.

If ESPN pays John Clayton for his "reports", why won't someone pay me?

If only there was a doctorate for following football… The kickoff is over 16 hours away and I'm going through piles of notes, getting ready for a preseason game that will mostly feature players that will soon be out of professional football working at jobs that I should be doing.

I'm sick, but at least I'm happy.

Enjoy the first quarter. If you have read this far and are only interested in seeing how the starters do, there is still some hope for you. Get out while you still can. The rest of us are not all that interested in vanilla blocking schemes and the first team showcase. If you are lucky, you'll get a glimpse of the next superstar in Pittsburgh, Troy Polamalu.

The first preseason game has little to do with who will trot out on the field to do battle with the Baltimore Ravens on opening day. This game is about, as Jim Wexell titled it, "Sleepers dreaming of big game in Detroit."

I watched the New England Patriots dominate the New York Giants last night just to re-acclimate myself to a preseason game. You want to see the first team gain some confidence, but the key is avoiding injuries. If Maddox has the rhythm going, fans will likely come away with a false sense of a good offense. Can the Steelers run the ball effectively? That's the real question. On defense, if the first team plays physically, know your team has a proud bunch that didn't feel like mailing it in. Camp has revealed a somewhat overconfident offense and a defense with a big chip on its shoulder.

If the Steelers can approach what the Patriots displayed last night, I will be a very happy fan. Not only was the first team play spirited; New England has a fantastic crop of rookies. I have my doubts that the newbies in Latrobe will look as impressive, but here are a few guesses about those who should impress.

I doubt the finer points of Troy Polamalu's game will catch the eyes of the fans watching at home. The wonder of Polamalu (43) is how quickly he is picking everything up. He hasn't smacked anyone a la Kendrell Bell, but his play is very impressive nonetheless. I expect Brian St. Pierre (2) and Alonzo Jackson (44) to grab the attention of most of those watching the game. Both St. Pierre and Jackson have recently found their camp legs and look much more comfortable.

On the UDFA front, the cat is out of the bag thanks to the reporting of Wex and Dale Lolley. Dante Brown (46) should flash and Jason Armstead (19) needs to break one on the return game. I'd predict Brown will deliver (and might even see some time with the first team) and Armstead will struggle. Nashville Dyer (25), at corner, has a way of attracting fan clubs. I'll bet even more folks will be asking about him after Saturday's game. Safety Russell Stuvaints (33) has the size the Steelers, and all NFL teams, like in a safety. How will he respond? I'm fond of DT David Upchurch (65), but even a defensive lineman of Aaron Smith's caliber in the 3-4 has a difficult time getting noticed. Watch Jeff Fadule (74) at left tackle if you can. I think he'll make the practice squad to back up the erratic Mathias Nkwenti (78).

Old players, new team… Follow Clint Kriewaldt (57). The Steelers picked him up as a special teams ace, but I think he's also impressive as a backup inside linebacker. He looks better than Fiala, the man he replaced. He is one of those low-key Steeler free agency pickups that will pay big dividends. Jabari Issa (95) is a brawler at defensive end. I doubt he'll make the team, but he'll go down fighting, realizing that he can pick up elsewhere. You'll probably get an eyeful of TE Jay Riemersma (85) at tight end. He's playing his way ahead of Mark Bruener. Tommy Maddox definitely appreciates another big target. Riemersma also long snaps and you should see him there sometime during the game.

Old players, on the hot seat… Chris Hoke (76) and Kendrick Clancy (96) are battling for the last defensive tackle spot. Hoke will go down fighting, literally. Clancy better start showing something soon or he'll be playing in Jacksonville. Josh Miller and Jeff Reed need to prove they can still do it. The Steelers found some camp bodies that can compete. Verron Haynes (34) may be on his way out. He needs a big game. James Harrison (93) and Justin Kurpeikis (90) may be in a duel for a possible 9th roster spot on the linebacker corps. Harrison is fun to watch just because he is mean. Kurpeikis is the better player.

Moving back for some perspective, I'd pay extra attention to special teams. The Steelers really need to show something here. They should be able to do so during the preseason games. I want to see smothering coverage and good height on the kicks. This has been a major handicap for the offense and defense long enough. I'd say Super Bowl hopes depend on the play here. Also, look for Kendrell Bell (97) playing RDE in the dime. He's struggling so far. Of course, catch Antwaan Randle El in his multiple trickster roles. Mike Mularkey won't tip his hand, but he wants to give the rest of the NFL something to stay up late thinking about.

Oh yeah… Pittsburgh Steelers football is finally back.

Jim Russell

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