As a general rule, preseason openers are a chance for a coaching staff to get a look at its entire roster of players. The starters (those who suit up, anyway) tend to play only a series or two at the most and the majority of the game is played by numerous athletes who likely won’t end up on the 53-man roster or, if they do, they are back-end-of-the-roster guys who aren’t expected to see much action once wins and losses start counting.
Since the Vikings are playing in the Hall of Fame game Sunday in Canton, Ohio, a fifth preseason game will be even more tempting to get starters off the field and not risk injury.
One of the positives of playing the extra game is that it comes against the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team known throughout the league as being one of the best in spotting and developing young talent well beyond the first and second round of the draft. As an organization, the Steelers have a policy of not getting into the feeding frenzy of free agency. Instead, they tend to develop their own players and, if they live up to expectations, they sign them long-term. If not, they generally lose more impact players to free agency than they bring in.
The Steelers won the AFC North last year with a record of 11-5, thanks in no small part to the emergence of a high-octane offense that had been missing in recent years. Ben Roethlisberger posted career numbers, Le’Veon Bell emerged as one of the league’s elite dual-threat running backs and Antonio Brown was a receiving machine, catching a whopping 129 passes for 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns. But, like the main Vikings players, don’t expect to see any of them Sunday. Or Heath Miller, Maurkice Pouncey or James Harrison. All will be held out, according to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
Instead, the Steelers will be looking at how they’re going to round out their roster. Offensively, it all starts at quarterback, where veteran Bruce Gradkowski has the inside track to remain as Roethlisberger’s backup. The battle will be at the No. 3 spot, where 2013 fourth-round pick Landry Jones will be facing a challenge from former Clemson standout Tajh Boyd.
The running back battle will be an interesting one to watch during the preseason, because Bell is scheduled to miss the first two regular-season games due to a suspension, forcing the backup backs into more significant roles. The team added veteran DeAngelo Williams in free agency after a long career with the Panthers. Speedy third-down man Dri Archer only had 10 carries as a rookie after being a third-round pick of the Steelers, so he will be looking to make his case for playing time, while the second half will be a battle for roster spots between undrafted free agents Josh Harris, Jawon Chisholm and Cameron Stingily.
Brown is the dominant wide receiver for the Steelers, but there is plenty of competition for players seeking time. The starting job opposite Brown remains up for grabs with Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant competing to win the coveted starting job. Also in the mix are veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey and third-round rookie Sammie Coates, both of whom are looking to carve out their own niche in the offense. Heyward-Bey and Coates may see a lot of action before turning the game over to the five undrafted free agents that are looking to land roster spots.
The offensive line is a homegrown group that includes a pair of first-rounders (center Pouncey and guard David DeCastro) and a second-rounder (Marcus Gilbert). Depth beyond the starters is pretty thin. Of the 11 offensive linemen beyond the starters, only one of them was drafted – 2012 second-round tackle Mike Adams. The Steelers have a long history of developing late-round and undrafted players and, from the looks of things, that will have to continue because they don’t have much of a choice.
The biggest change for the Steelers has come on the defensive side of the ball. Longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is gone, as are the defensive linemen who made the Steelers famous in recent years, guys like Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel. Without players like Troy Polamalu in the secondary, there are going to be a lot of former high draft picks that will be fighting for starting jobs and key reserves
On the defensive line, the Steelers have 2011 first-round pick Cameron Heyward at one end spot and 2014 second-rounder Stephon Tuitt at the other end spot. The competition will be at nose tackle, where Steve McClendon will try to hold off second-year pro Daniel McCullers and undrafted rookie free agent Mike Thornton.
The linebacker corps is stacked with high draft picks, including first-rounders – Lawrence Timmons (2007), Jarvis Jones (2013), Ryan Shazier (2014) and Bud Dupree (2015). It seems clear that the Steelers identified linebacker as an issue – three straight first-round picks at the position speaks to that – but there will be plenty of competition taking place for those looking to earn roster spots in the 3-4 scheme.
The secondary has a different look to it without Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor, both of who retired after last season. Third-year pro Thomas Shamarko will get the first chance to replace Polamalu, and the battle to start opposite William Gay will be waged by veterans Cortez Allen, Brandon Boykin and second-round rookie Senquez Golson.
There isn’t a lot for fans to get overly excited about when it comes to a first preseason game, but, given that the Steelers and Vikings are two teams that have built a reputation of building from within and developing players – whether starters or the 53rd man on the roster – once the starters replace their helmets with baseball caps, the Steelers will be an ideal test to see how good the depth on the Vikings roster is as the countdown to the regular season opener officially begins.
Preview: Steelers sitting stars vs. Vikings
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