The New York Giants face the Pittsburgh Steelers in preseason action Saturday night, and we are busting out an old standby in preparation for the game. Neal Coolong of SB Nation's Steelers web site, 'Behind The Steel Curtain,' answered some questions this week. The results of our Q&A are below.
Ed: The Giants have not taken a linebacker in the first round since 1984. The Steelers took Ryan Shazier 15th overall. How has he looked thus far?
Neal Coolong: Shazier has looked excellent so far. His speed and athleticism are as advertised. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau almost seems to be going out of his way to contain his excitement. He's already labeled Shazier a starter - no Steelers rookie has ever started in Week 1 for Dick LeBeau.
It's a welcome and borderline desperate need. While the Steelers' inside linebackers appear to be the deepest position on the field (thinnest on the team last year, the addition of Shazier, the return of Sean Spence and the improvement of Vince Williams has changed that), Shazier provides a level of explosive playmaking ability this defense has woefully lacked the last three years.
He injured his right knee in practice this week, and may not play Saturday, which I think will cause a fairly significant amount of letdown among Steelers fans. They're excited to see him.
Ed: Much like the Giants, the Steelers have been down the past couple of seasons. What makes you believe this year will be different?
Neal: The 2013 season started horribly for the Steelers. From the 18-13 loss to the Giants in preseason Week 1 to the Mike Adams Swinging Gate Fiasco against Minnesota in Week 4, the Steelers didn't win once. Losing eight games of anything in a row, scrimmage or otherwise, is disheartening. Even Ben Roethlisberger declared the Steelers as "pretty much the worst team in the NFL." He wasn't wrong, either.
They rebounded from that, and won eight of their next 12 and narrowly missed the playoffs. A big part of that was the first consistently effective offensive production the team had seen in two seasons, and a defense that greatly reduced (not eliminated) the amount of big plays it was giving up.
I'm confident the Steelers are a 10-win team in 2014 because of what we saw at the end of last season, and the improvement they've made via the draft and free agency. Lance Moore was brought in to play the slot, and he's a smart, effective route-runner against zone - something teams will have to employ considering the advantage the Steelers can have with their wide receivers on the outside. Heath Miller is fully healthy, Matt Spaeth is fully healthy (you have no idea how valuable your tight ends are until one of them is named "David Paulson"), a huge athletic upgrade at safety in Mike Mitchell along with a strong stable of inside linebackers can help shore up a porous run game.
Ed: What unknown player or players should Giants fans be looking for Saturday night?
Neal: "The Tennessee Shade Tree" Dan McCullers. I say him because you won't be able to miss him. McCullers, the team's sixth-round pick out of Tennessee, is probably the NFL's largest player. Standing 6-foot-7 and weighing 352 pounds, he was six inches taller than the next heaviest player at the NFL Scouting Combine and he weight 40 pounds more than the next tallest player.
I hate to focus on his size like he's some kind of carnival side show, but it's head-turning when you see him on the field. He's looking to make the roster as a developmental project. Obviously, his size suggests nose tackle, but his 37-inch long arms earn him consideration as a defensive end. It'll be interesting for Steelers fans to watch where he's playing, while Giants fans can just enjoy how big he's going to look in comparison to smaller running backs he tackles.
Ed: Which Giants player would you like to see on the Steelers' roster? Why?
Neal: It's really hard to not want Jason Pierre-Paul. He's the very definition of athletic and from a football perspective, it sounds like a coach's (and a hack writer's) dream to scheme of roles he could play on the field. But I really like Andre Williams. I love the combination of size and power he has, but what's most impressive to me is his balance. Most younger running backs get out ahead of their blockers and even themselves. They get themselves tackled more than defenders actually tackle them, but I can see a real technical proficiency in Williams' game.
Not to be too dramatic, but I see a really good career for him.
Ed: How important are these games? Do you care if the Steelers win in the preseason?
Neal: Since the Steelers didn't win at all last year, yes, I want them to win. 'Course, I'd bust my tail to beat my grandmother in checkers (and I'll beat her one of these years). I think most would agree it doesn't matter if you win them, but it matters if you lose all of them. You want to have some kind of positive feeling from a game. More than anything, you want everyone to stay healthy, but notching a win Saturday would be nice too.
Thanks to Neal for taking the time to trade some questions and answers with me. Check out the Pittsburgh perspective on the game and follow @btsteelcurtain on Twitter.