Vikings-Steeler Preview: Results, Not Flash

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a great test for the Vikings in the one preseason game that can really measure a team. Pittsburgh isn't filled with glitzy players, but we take a look at the component parts on a position-by-position basis that make the Steelers successful.

The Vikings' final home preseason game Saturday against the Pittsburgh Steelers is one of the most highly anticipated games of the early season. The only game in which the starters will play into the second half, a test with one of the powerhouse teams of the AFC will be a good measuring stick as to how far the Vikings have progressed over the offseason.

The game reunites head coach Brad Childress with former defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin, now Pittsburgh's head coach. But, while Tomlin is known for his defensive acumen, it is the Pittsburgh offense that turned heads last year and appears to be even stronger in 2008 with some key rookie additions.

Ben Roethlisberger emerged as much more than simply a game manager last year, throwing 32 touchdown passes last season and showing a new high-octane offense that no longer depended on the run to grind out time on the game clock. While he was never very scary to Vikings fans, Charlie Batch has found a home with the Steelers and is a solid No. 2 quarterback. But Batch has been sidelined with a broken collarbone and he is expected to miss five more weeks. It is possible Batch may be one of the cuts the Steelers execute to trim to the 53-man roster, but, if there is a chance he will be back in a month, the team will likely save a roster spot for him. As insurance, the Steelers signed former first-round draft pick Byron Leftwich, who won a competition with Daunte Culpepper for the backup job simply by accepting what he could get while Culpepper wanted more. Like the Vikings, Pittsburgh took a quarterback in the fifth round of the draft (Dennis Dixon) and his roster spot would seem safe. Both Leftwich and Dixon will see about a quarter of duty and they will have to deliver the goods because their jobs may depend on it.

The running game was a big disappointment last year, despite Willie Parker having 321 carries. He wasn't a force in short-yardage or goal-line situations and wore down as the season went on. To say the Steelers addressed that need is an understatement. The Steelers drafted Rashard Mendenhall on the first round of the 2008 draft and signed former Viking Mewelde Moore in free agency. With the release of Najeh Davenport in June, it would appear that the fourth running back spot will go to former University of Minnesota running back Gary Russell. Carey Davis is a solid fullback, although he is used almost exclusively as a blocker – in 16 games last year, he had just 29 touches on offense (17 carries and 12 receptions). First-year man Billy Latsko is expected to make the team as a backup and special-teams player.

The wide receiver position for the Steelers is also looking very strong with the emergence of Santonio Holmes as a legitimate deep threat. Entering his third season, a year in which most wide receivers show their most improvement, Holmes is coming off a year in which he caught 52 passes for 942 yards and eight touchdowns. He had three 100-yard games in 2007 and a pair of multi-TD games to establish himself as go-to type receiver, taking that mantle away from veteran Hines Ward. Entering his 11th season, Ward has lost a step, but is still a dangerous receiver. He led the Steelers with 71 receptions despite missing three games due to injury. A strong receiver with excellent route-running ability, he is developing into one of the game's top possession receivers who can be counted on to make the big catch in the clutch. Depth behind the starters is much improved with the addition of rookie Limas Sweed out of Texas. Sweed is a big target at 6-4, 212 and is competing with fourth-year pro Nate Washington for the No. 3 receiver job. Washington caught just 29 passes in 2007, but five of them went for touchdowns. It is expected that Pittsburgh will run a lot of three-receiver sets, in which Ward will move into the slot to take advantage of his strengths much in the same way Bobby Wade is expected to for the Vikings. The competition for backup positions is fierce, with return specialist Eddie Drummond and Willie Reid battling unproven youngsters Dallas Baker and Jeremy Bloom for what may turn out to be one roster spot.

If anyone emerged last year as a go-to receiver for Roethlisberger, it was tight end Heath Miller. He caught 47 passes and scored seven touchdowns last year and became a primary target in the red zone. Backups Matt Spaeth and Jon Dekker both saw action last year, but their roles were primarily as blockers and on special teams. Dekker was placed on injured reserve last week and the team signed Lee Vickers to compete with undrafted rookie Dezmond Sherrod for a roster spot. If the Steelers are going to throw to their tight ends Saturday, look for Miller to be the primary (if not exclusive) target. Second-year pro Cody Boyd is going to undergo an arthroscopic procedure on his shoulder next Monday, so his spot on the roster is in doubt.

The offensive line has been a problem area for the team the last couple of years and didn't get any better when left guard Alan Faneca left via free agency. The line has two replacement players – Chris Kemoeatu replaces Faneca at left guard and former Carolina center Justin Hartwig is expected to replace Sean Mahan – although no final word as to who will start when the regular season begins has been announced. The rest of the line has experience together. Left tackle Marvel Smith is in his ninth year, while right guard Kendell Simmons is his seventh. Right tackle Willie Colon is entering his third year and, after and up-and-down 2007 season, big things are expected from him. The battles to watch will be in the second half. The competition at tackle includes former starter Max Starks, Trai Essex, Tony Hills and Jeremy Parquet. The guard backups appear set with Sean Mahan and Matt Lentz and the competition for backup center if the team opts to keep an additional center instead of Mahan is being waged between second-year man Darnell Stapleton and undrafted rookie Doug Legursky. The Steelers may try to get by with nine offensive linemen, making versatility a must.

Although Tomlin is known for his expertise in the Tampa-2 defense, his Steelers still operate out of a 3-4 defensive alignment. The team is showing the signs of age on the defensive front. The youngest of the starter is DE Brett Keisel, who turns 30 next month. Nose tackle Casey Hampton is entering his eighth season and DE Aaron Smith is playing in his 10th year. There are concerns that, given their age, there could be a bigger chance for injury to the starters, so the Steelers have been at work to provide insurance. The team signed veteran Orpheus Roye this week to compete with Travis Kirschke, Nick Eason and Ryan McBean as the backup rotation behind the starters. Eight-year man Chris Hoke is the primary backup at nose tackle.

What has always been the calling card of the Steelers 3-4 defense has been the active and aggressive linebacker corp. James Harrison was the breakout performer of the year in 2007, making big plays and becoming a consistent sack artist. The same type of improvement is expected from sophomore LaMarr Woodley, who steps in at the left OLB spot. He made strong progress during his rookie year and is expected to be a key component to the defense this time around. In the middle, the Steelers have a pair of consistent veterans in 12th-year pro James Farrior and seventh-year LB Larry Foote. Both are extremely good against the run filling in gaps and the Steelers thought so much of Farrior that, despite his age, they signed him to a four-year, $18.25 million contract extension earlier this week. The competition for backup spots on the outside includes incumbents Arnold Harrison and Andre Frazier and rookies Bruce Davis and Mike Humpal. Linebacker was clearly a point of emphasis on draft day for the Steelers, who used their third-round pick on Davis and a sixth-round selection on Humpal. On the inside, last year's first-round pick Lawrence Timmons is expected to take over a starting position at some point, while fellow high draft choice Keyaron Fox and undrafted rookie Donovan Woods compete for what might be one roster spot.

The secondary is one of the best in the game, but has taken a hit during training camp with safety Troy Polamalu being down with a hamstring injury. When healthy, Polamalu is about as good as it gets at the position. Competition at the other safety position is very strong with Ryan Clark, Anthony Smith and Tyrone Carter – all of whom started at least five games for the Steelers last year – in the mix. Clark is coming off of spleen surgery and has been worked in slowly during camp. If the Steelers keep more than four safeties, the battle for the fifth spot will come down to rookies Ryan Mundy and Grant Mason, neither of whom is assured of a roster spot. At the cornerback position, Deshea Townsend is an excellent zone CB that fits in well with the scheme the Steelers run. Ike Taylor is a strong tackler, but doesn't have great ball skills and tends to get picked on. The competition for the nickel back spot is between fourth-year man Bryant McFadden and second-year corner William Gay. Anthony Madison fits in the mix as well, thanks to his special teams play. Undrafted rookie Roy Lewis has reportedly had a strong training camp but is facing an uphill battle to make the final roster.

The Steelers aren't the flashiest team in the league, but they are the model of consistency. They rarely give away games and held nine of their 2007 opponents under 20 points. They do a lot of things well and, with an offense capable of putting up big points and a defense capable of shutting down an opponent, they look like an ideal opponent for the Vikings in the one preseason that "counts." They will be a strong test for both the Vikings offense and defense and an excellent way of measuring the team's own progress as the regular season draws near.


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