The NFL preseason is upon, and the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers join the party Saturday night at Heinz Field. With that in mind Neal Coolong of SB Nation's Steelers web site, 'Behind The Steel Curtain,' and I are breaking out the old standby -- the 'Five Questions' post.
Here are Neal's answers to my questions about the Steelers.
Ed: How much are the Pittsburgh starters expected to play Saturday?
As you know, the problem of teams with franchise quarterbacks is having to highlight the battle for their third string spot.
Defensively, though, there are a lot of younger guys who need to get some reps, so I would imagine a starting 11 group being quickly subbed out and the second and third string guys mixing in and out the rest of the game.
Ed: Tell us about some of the young players you are looking forward to seeing, and who Giants fans should watch for?
Neal: Second round RB Le'Veon Bell has probably been earning the most headlines as far as the younger group goes, but he'll probably have roughly the same amount of carries as either Jonathan Dwyer or Isaac Redman - you remember Redman, I would imagine.
Markus Wheaton, a third-round wide receiver out of Oregon State is an intriguing player this season. Lot of talent, a bit behind on the learning curve due to that stupid NCAA rule that doesn't allow players to participate in team practices until their graduating class is out for the year. Not sure what kind of impact he'll make right away, but I think he's a special player. Great all-around tools, needs some work on his hands, but he'll be an outstanding player at some point in his career.
Ed: What is Plaxico Burress showing so far? Does he have anything left and can he be useful for the Steelers?
Neal: He's showing that he's tall, he's old (36 next week) and apparently players are referring to him as "grandpa."
I've heard he's in great shape, and with a veteran minimum contract and still maintaining an able-body, I think he'll make the team. We'll see how much he contributes, but 40 catches, 500 yards and three touchdowns is seen as a success for a guy making $900k a year.
[NOTE: This question is now moot, since Burress is out for the season. Neal's answer is still an interesting one.]
Ed: An 8-8 finish in 2012 was disappointing for Pittsburgh. Are you confident this season will be better for the Steelers?
Neal: Yeah, it was pretty disappointing. I wouldn't be surprised the reason the Giants drafted Ryan Nassib this past year was because of what happened to the Steelers after Roethlisberger was injured. Byron Leftwich managed to tear up his shoulder on a running play against Baltimore in one of the first plays of the game, and Charlie Batch looked abysmal at times. He looked serviceable other times, but plain and simple, in this league, you can't have a big drop-off at the quarterback position and expect to win.
Making it worse, I'd argue Roethlisberger's more skittish, dumber and more careless twin brother replaced him in the season's last four games. He played terribly down the stretch, and the season ended the way it did on the heels of one of the poorest clutch performances in Roethlisberger's career (an overtime interception against the Cowboys and a late-game pick against Cincinnati).
Last year was just weird all around, and I don't mean just because the Steelers finished at .500. The team never seemed to get a real sense of itself and wasn't consistent from game-to-game. I think Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is making a physical camp specifically to train their mental strength, and challenge them to remain sharp from game-to-game. I don't think we saw that often last year.
Ed: Is there a player the Steelers lost from last season's team that you aren't sure they can adequately replace?
Neal: I think it's James Harrison - and yes, I'm aware how fast Mike Wallace is. Harrison was and probably still is better at his position than Wallace ever was at his. He's more versatile, and while Wallace can change a game on just two catches, Harrison can with two blown plays. He never made those mistakes; or at least he never made them often.
I think the team had a very tough decision to make in offering him a pay cut to stay, and I don't blame him for turning them down (even if he accepted a little less to play for Cincinnati). Harrison is one of the more underrated pure football players of the last 10 years. No outside linebacker set the edge better than Harrison did against the run. No one. I don't see anyone on the Steelers roster, and very few around the league able to do what Harrison did from 2007-2011 for the Steelers.
Lots of guys run deep and catch the ball with their chest. Harrison owned the defensive right edge for five years. It's not a coincidence the Steelers are the top defensive team in the league over that time period.