Injuries be damned (at least after a favorable MRI). Cowher plans to play his starters substantially more in this last preseason game than he has done in the past, "I've taken an introspective approach to this. The last two seasons, we haven't opened up the year playing very well. I've looked at this game and I feel like maybe we need to play more in this game. As I told those guys today, maybe this thing started the week before."
QB Kordell Stewart may need every second of playing time he can muster just to steal the limelight back from old upstart Tommy Maddox. Maddox is the top rated quarterback in the preseason, completing 72% of his passes for an astonishing (by Pittsburgh standards, anyway) 10.24 yards per attempt. Is Stewart starting to look over his shoulder?
Hines Ward also appears to be looking over his shoulder, "I saw him do some good things. All the plays he made were in the slot. The touchdown he made was in the slot." Ward seemed anxious to remind all of us that rookie phenom Antwaan Randle El (who has all Pittsburgh abuzz with his play) made all his dazzling moves at the slot position, not flanker.
Despite all the usual fan hoopla and fanfare concerning the passing game, the coaching staff is really hoping to see more from the running game. Stewart probably will not get much of a chance to prove he's better than Maddox. The running attack has been abysmal during the preseason and the Steelers are beginning to sound a little nervous about the prospect of relying exclusively on the passing attack. Furthermore, the battle for right guard is far from resolved. Oliver Ross deserves a better look at that position, but Kendall Simmons would also benefit greatly from more time running with the first team. If this preseason game means anything to the Steelers, the battle at right guard about sums it up.
Beyond Bettis and the offensive line, the Vikings should provide the Steelers a great test of their pass defense. The key, as always, will be how much the defense can pressure Viking QB Dante Culpepper. Randy Moss will eat alive even the best corners in the NFL if the defense can't manage to disrupt and fluster Culpepper. The Vikings offensive line has been superb during the preseason and Culpepper has not even been sacked once. Will the Steelers run more than their typical vanilla defense against the Vikes? We'll see just how far the new and improved Bill Cowher is willing to go to get ready for the opener.
The biggest concern for the Vikings this preseason is the kicking game. PK Doug Brien is 1-5 during the preseason in his attempt to replace the retired Gary Anderson. The young defense has been fairly solid and definitely much faster than in the past. The Vikings do sport a fairly well rounded squad and the kicking game may be the only thing holding them back from a run at the playoffs. But the defense is relatively inexperienced and may look much worse during the regular season when opposing teams open up their offenses to the their full compliment of plays. The Steelers could exploit this just to give their running game a much-needed boost in confidence.
What the Steelers need to show in this tune-up is a little more fire. The rookies have provided a burst of energy (mostly from Randle El), but the starters have looked a little complacent. Cowher has fostered an attitude among his veterans that they can just turn it on when the want to, when they need to. Maddox and Randle El may have lit the competitive fire under Stewart and Ward, but really the rest of the starters need a healthy dose themselves.
Cowher's next step as a coach is his last. All he has left to do in his career is win the Super Bowl. He's gone public with his desire to start better out of the gate and not force the running game so much. That all starts this Thursday in a game that suddenly means much more than a preseason match up.