The Pittsburgh Steelers are beginning their defense of their Super Bowl title with their first game in front of their home fans at Heinz Field Saturday as they play host to the Vikings in the second preseason game of the year for both teams.
The Steelers are far from full strength as they face the Vikings, starting with their quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger is listed as questionable but likely won't play at all Saturday due to an injury to his throwing thumb. Fans may recall that Roethlisberger played the second half of the 2005 with a broken right thumb. This injury happened in practice Wednesday when he hit the thumb on the shoulder pad of an offensive lineman. In his absence, veteran and former Lion Charlie Batch will get the call. Batch has the confidence of his teammates, who spoke out in favor of him shortly after Roethlisberger nearly died in a motorcycle accident this summer. The big battle at quarterback is for the No. 3 position, where rookie Omar Jacobs is battling Shane Boyd for a roster spot. Both will likely see a lot of playing time Saturday.
Change is also the watchword at running back. After years of having Jerome Bettis in the backfield, Willie Parker has taken over as the No. 1 guy in the backfield. A surprise last year when he won the opening-day starting job due to injuries to Bettis and Duce Staley, Parker kept the starting job most of the season and started all 15 games in which he played. The Steelers expect to use Staley in short-yardage and goal-line situations against the Vikings to see if it is a role he can assume. Another Steelers RB expected to see a lot of time is Verron Haynes, who could end up as their eventual short-yardage back. He's beaten out rookie Cedric Humes for the No. 3 spot in the backfield and now has his sights set on Staley's spot.
Wide receiver has also been a trouble spot, with All-Pro Hines Ward sidelined during practice with a recurring hamstring injury that has limited him much of training camp. If he can't go, second-year pro Nate Washington, who played in only one game in 2005, would get the start alongside Cedrick Wilson. With Antwaan Randle El gone via free agency, a couple of the young Steelers wide receivers will likely see double duty. Rookie Santonio Holmes is likely going to return kickoffs Saturday and fellow rookie Willie Reid is going to be returning punts. Their versatility will likely secure them roster spots, which could be bad news for fifth-year pro Lee Mays, who missed all of last season with injuries and has been in and out of the lineup at camp this year. The tight end position remains strong, with last year's No. 1 pick Heath Miller expecting to be more of a focus in the passing game, Jerame Tuman entrenched as the top blocking tight end and rookie Charles Davis looking for any playing time he can get.
One of the Steelers' biggest strengths last year was an overpowering offensive line, anchored by center Alan Faneca and left guard Jeff Hartings. Both are Pro Bowl level players and drive the Steelers' in-your-face running game. At the tackles, Marvel Smith and Max Starks return, and at right guard, for the time being anyway, Kendall Simmons has moved ahead of Chris Kemoeatu on the depth chart. Unlike the Vikings, the Steelers' offensive line was a cohesive unit last year, with four of the five starters making all 16 starts the other (Smith) starting 12 of 16 games. The position battles are more for roster spots than starting time, with rookie Marvin Phillip trying to make an impression at center while Chukky Okobi recovers from herniated disk surgery. At the guards, the battle is between 11-year veteran Barrett Brooks and youngsters Tim Brown and Grayling Love for likely one roster spot. At tackle, the competition for the backup left tackle spot is down to Trai Essex and Ulish Booker, with Essex, a third-round pick last year, holding the advantage.
The Vikings will face a little of the unknown when going against the Steelers defense, one of the few teams in the league that use a 3-4 defense as a base set. The line is anchored by Casey Hampton, who is nearly impossible for linemen to move. His battle with Matt Birk will be one of the matchups to watch in the early portion of the game. He is flanked by Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel at the end. Smith has shown steady improvement over the last few years and seems destined to get acknowledged with a Pro Bowl bid eventually. Keisel is in his first year as a starter, replacing Kimo von Oelhoffen, who left via free agency in the offseason. Depth is somewhat thin, with veteran Chris Hoke backing up Hampton at nose tackle and veterans Travis Kirschke and Rodney Bailey, and newcomers Shaun Nua and Orien Harris competing for two roster spots at end.
The strength of the Steelers defense has always been at linebacker, where they have four dominant starters in Clark Haggins and Joey Porter on the outside and James Farrior and Larry Foote on the inside. All four started 13 or more games last year and they are relentless in pursuit. They will likely see about a quarter of action before giving way to the backups. On the outside it is a battle of the Harrisons – Arnold and James – as well as second-year man Andre Frazier for a pair of roster spots. On the inside, converted defensive back Ricardo Colclough is fighting it out with eight-year man Clint Kriewaldt and Ronald Stanley for two roster positions.
The secondary is as solid as it gets with the exception of free safety. Cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend are both very strong and Troy Polamalu is a beast at strong safety, but the free safety position remains a big question mark. Former Viking Tyrone Carter was the starter heading into training camp, but lost the starting job for Saturday's game to second-year man Ryan Clark. The biggest training camp battle in the secondary is at cornerback, where Colclough is splitting his time between corner and linebacker and Bryant McFadden is trying to fight off rookie Anthony Madison and veteran Chidi Iwuoma for the nickel back position.
Even the punter's position is up in the air, as 16-year veteran Chris Gardocki is getting a serious challenge from Mike Barr for his roster spot. Although veteran special teamers are usually rubber-stamped from year to year, Gardocki is facing a serious test and could lose his spot on the roster if he doesn't perform.
The second preseason game is typically one where teams start making the separation as to who on a roster is safe and who is likely to be sent packing. For a lot of the players, it is a final chance in game situations to make a lasting impression and make it harder for the coaches to cut them. But, for some of them, Saturday's game will be their last big action as teams start gearing up for the start of the regular season.
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