Preseason games don't mean much to the starters, but there are 31 other guys trying to make the final roster. Ryan Wilson takes a look at several players to watch in Sunday night's game.
If we're being honest, the Hall of Fame game is nothing more than a glorified practice. It's lipstick on a pig, Pacman Jones in a suit. But here's the thing: the NFL is like heroin. And for five months, we've been getting by on the football-equivalent of meth: free agency, the draft, minicamp, and the first week of training camp. Since most of us are NFL-crazed savages who haven't seen a real live game since February, we'll gladly take anything remotely resembling football. Passes will be dropped, blocks will be missed, penalties will be committed, and Cedrick Wilson will complain about not getting the ball. But it won't matter, because the Hall of Fame game isn't just a game, it's a big flashing, neon sign that reads: "Meth Clinic Closed, Get Free Heroin Here." Obviously, neither the Pittsburgh Steelers nor the New Orleans Saints will be in mid-season form. But that's not the point. For me, it officially closes the book on last year's 8-8 roller coaster, and Bill Cowher's final year in Pittsburgh. This is the first glimpse at a team just two years removed from the Super Bowl. But in those 18 months, the heart of the organization retired, the franchise quarterback almost died, and the head coach resigned to following high school girls basketball. While I'm not likely to learn anything about the 2007 season from watching what can kindly be described as 60 minutes of meaningless football, guess what? I'm watching. Every play. To try to learn something about the 2007 season. But you already knew that because you'll be doing the same thing. As long as we're in this together, here are three story lines worth following Sunday night:
Battle for No. 3.
Right now, Hines Ward, Cedrick Wilson and Santonio Holmes are the teams' top three wideouts. That's sure to change because Holmes should be fully recovered from his early-training camp polio scare, and Wilson isn't a No. 2 receiver. That's not a knock on Wilson -- I think he's a solid role player -- and no amount of bellyaching to the media will change my opinion. He's fast, but he's small. That alone isn't an indictment on his abilities -- Marvin Harrison, Steve Smith and Santana Moss are midgets and they manage to hold their own. But between the dropped passes, and Wilson's struggles to get open, you have yourself a No. 3 wide receiver. But that could change. Willie Reid, for the second straight year, is having a great training camp. In addition to winning the return job(s), he's also looked very sharp at wideout. Getting open and catching everything in your general vicinity helps with that perception, apparently. There's no rush, though; Nate Washington enters his redshirt sophomore season, and while I haven't heard much about him during the first week of camp, that's not necessarily a bad thing. (By the way: remember last preseason, when Roethlisberger predicted a big season for Washington? Nate started off strong, and showed glimpses of brilliance, but was too inconsistent. Maybe Big Ben was a year early in his prognostications.) Who's listed where on the depth chart isn't all that important right now; Bruce Arians plans on showcasing multiple-wide receiver sets, which means plenty of opportunities for everybody (in theory, anyway, Ced). And unlike preseasons past, I feel pretty good about this unit. Hines is Hines, Holmes is coming off a great rookie season, Ced is serviceable, Washington screams potential, and Reid is the wild card. Look around the league; things could be much, much worse.
Winning in the trenches.
I am sufficiently pumped about the offensive line. I can't remember the last time I felt that way in the preseason. The 2003 preseason was a joke (meet your starting right tackle, Todd Fordham; Kendall Simmons missed 2004 with a knee injury, and Oliver Ross was penciled in at right tackle; Simmons returned in 2005, but Keydrick Vincent and Ross were gone with second-year tackle Max Starks replacing Ross; and although 2006 returned the Super Bowl starting five, the unit was a serious injury away from another 2003 experience. Perhaps the weirdest thing about my feeling for the '07 squad is that the Steelers lost Russ Grimm to the Cardinals and Jeff Hartings to poolside Piña Coladas. If you had told me that in December, I would've end up on suicide watch. Maybe I should be terrified, but I'm not. Larry Zierlein had me at "short set." He might not be able to send an e-mail, but Zierlein sounds like he knows how to motivate big, fat guys to block other big, fat guys.
I never thought I'd be jazzed about Simmons and Starks anchoring the right side of the line, but apparently they both had a great two weeks of camp. It's a start. Throw in an angry Alan Faneca and a healthy Marvel Smith, and all that's left is finding a center. (This is a little more involved than that last sentence might indicate. But you know that.) But it's not about the first-teamers -- see 2003 and 2004 for opposing examples -- it's about the backups. Willie Colon and Chris Kemoeatu are, for the first time, really pushing for starting jobs, and Jason Capizzi, while a long way from the game-day roster, is a promising young player not drafted in the first or second round. It's amazing how a little competition makes everybody better. I know that Cowher & Co. had their favorites, and maybe that allowed some players to get complacent, but that doesn't seem to be the case now. Of course, it's hard to make judgments from reading practice reports, which, as Herm Edwards reminds us all, IS WHY WE PLAY THE GAME.
Shaping up the secondary.
Remember 2002, when Lee Flowers and Brent Alexander were the Steelers' safeties? Now, five years later, the safety positions are set, probably for five more years. For an idea of how far this unit has come, think about this: I'd take Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark and Anthony Smith over Sean Taylor, LaRon Landry and Pierson Prioleau, or Ed Reed, Dawan Landry and Gerome Sapp. Unfortunately, the cornerback position has been a little more problematic. Don't get me wrong, I'm not comparing DeWayne Washington, Chad Scott and Hank Poteat to Deshea Townsend, Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden and Ricardo Colclough. That's like saying Windows ME and Mac OS X are equally impressive operating systems. But despite the differences between the old and the new, the current unit has been wildly inconsistent. And that's what makes it so frustrating. With Washington and Scott, you knew what you were getting -- big cushions, a lot of scoring, and seven or eight pass interference calls a game. Any defended passes or interceptions were gravy. But Taylor, Colclough, and McFadden? Who the hell knows. This group can pull off the jaw-droppingly spectacular (Taylor's interception against the Pats during the 2004 regular season) and follow it up with mind-numbingly inane (Taylor's "matchup" with Javon Walker last year). It'll be interesting to see if Tomlin's background as a defensive backs coach magically makes for a more consistent secondary. I'd like to think so, but I have my suspicions. And although the nickel and dime defenses are basically set, Anthony Madison, William Gay and Chidi Iwuoma still have much to prove; not only on defense, but on the coverage units. Which reminds me ... God help us if the special teams stink up the joint. Whatever happens Sunday night, just know this: Football season is here. Finally.
4 August 2007