Hey all. Its been a while since I've posted anything of substance, most of you probably remember me as "the guy who does mock drafts not named big jay", but I have been around giving the occasional comment from my perspective. Anyway I'm going to Pittsburgh tomorrow for the first preseason game of our season (cant wait, june and july have been terrible for my obsessive-compulsive thirst for football thats only been slightly quenched by the madden 11), so I thought I'd post some of the things I will be looking for in tomorrows battle with the Lions.
1. Let's get the obvious out of the way: the quarterbacks. Everyone knows that we're in a sticky and unprecedented situation with our QBs, so everyone will be watching closely at how Tomlin & Co. divvy up the snaps with our first team offense. I'm expecting Ben to get 10-15 snaps tomorrow with the first team and then Byron taking the rest. If I were MT id be giving Ben 70-80% of first team snaps in the first 2 preseason games, then let Byron take over completely once we get to game 3. I've been pretty outspoken in saying that I would prefer to have Dennis Dixon start over Byron in Ben's place, but I've pretty much resigned myself to the fact that Byron will start.
2. Heath Miller. Again, everyone knows we lost Santonio this offseason and there's been a lot of talk about how Mike Wallace and our other receivers can fill his void. I myself think the answer lies within Heath. Yes, Wallace and ARE and hopefully even the rookie Emmanuel Sanders will have to step up and be prominent in the passing game, but people are forgetting that we still have an extremely proven and reliable option in Miller. I really believe Heath can become an even more prominent part of our passing game and I dont think its unreasonable to hope for Tony Gonzalez-type numbers from him. I think he has been asked to do a lot of blocking so far in his career to make up for our terrible O-line and that has resulted in fewer opportunities in the passing game. Hopefully we can start to rely on him more to help make up for the loss of Holmes.
3. The Offensive Line. Over the past few years it has become required of fans, media and obsessive observers to question and scrutinize our OL. The Front Office was criticized last offseason for not doing much to upgrade this unit and relying on continuity for improvement. We definitely saw improvement but this is still a weak point on our offense. Now, with two new starters this year, the continuity isnt there and we'll have to see improvement in talent. I'll obviously be watching Flozell Adams and Maurkice Pouncey to see how they perform, but I also want to see what improvements Max Starks has made (if any) and how Justin Hartwig is doing after offseason surgery. Hopefully Kemo is back healthy again as well.
4. Young skill players. Like I said, theres a lot being made about Santonio's void and the lack of proven talent behind him; so i'll be watching Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown closely. But I'll also be watching Stefan Logan, Jonathan Dwyer, Frank Summers and
the legend Isaac Redman too. There are a couple interesting battles going on between these young players. Sanders looks like he locked up a roster spot at receiver and is pushing Antwaan Randle El for the #3 receiver job. He's also battling Brown and Logan for return duties. From my estimation, Logan will have to either blow Sanders and Brown out in the return game or start to show some skills at receiver to keep his job. Brown can earn a spot by either beating Logan out on special teams or by not losing badly enough so that he can claim his superior receiving skills are enough to warrant the spot. However, both Logan and Brown could be on the outside looking in if Sanders beats them out. The short-yardage back is also up in the air, as Dwyer, Summers and Redman all look to make the team in that area. Redman and Summers will likely compete for the fullback job, but if Dwyer doesnt prove he can be a reliable backup MT might just cut Dwyer and keep the other two.
5. Moving to the defense now: the secondary. This has been talked about a lot as the secondary has been blamed for many of those 4th quarter collapses last season. I'll be keeping a close eye on how our young corners are coming along, as well as how fluid Troy looks. All reports out of camp say that Keenan Lewis looks great and could push Bryant McFadden for the #2 starting CB job. I doubt that will happen, but he could take over for William Gay at nickel. I've also heard great things about rookie Crezdon Butler, and will be watching him closely. Apparently the coaches have been working him in all phases of the secondary (corner, nickel and even safety), which is quite impressive for a rookie considering how complex our defense is. Lastly Im really looking forward to see how Ike Taylor does against Calvin Johnson. Johnson presents as difficult a matchup as there is from a physical standpoint, so Ike will have his hands full. In 2008 Ike did a great job matching up against opposing #1 receivers, but seemed to take a step back last season. Im hoping he regains his old form.
6. Young defenders. Our starters are set, but there is a lot of uncertainty about how talented and deep our backups are. Thaddeus Gibson and Ziggy Hood have been the talk of camp so far, so I'll be watching how they perform in game situations. Our second round pick Jason Worilds has been slowed down by injuries recently, so I dont know whether he will play, but if he does I'd like to see him using some of the counter moves he's been working on in the pass rush. I'm also excited to see Sunny Harris. I've heard a lot about him since we drafted him last year, but havent seen him at all. The coaches are apparently thrilled with how he's coming along, as he has outperformed his expectations since being a 6th round pick.
7. Special Teams. A major disappointment last year, the ST may have cost us a spot in the playoffs. The good news however: our team is full of young players who will have to make a name on special teams before they are asked to contribute. We brought in veterans Will Allen and Arnaz Battle, who were both Special Teams captains with their former teams. But we also drafted a ton of young defenders with special teams pedigrees. Worilds, Gibson and Butler should all excell on ST while 5th round pick Stevenson Sylvester has already made a name for himself in that area with the coaches. Also, I'll be watching Jeff Reed and Dan Sepulveda closely. Last season many of us wondered if Sepulveda could take Kickoff duties from Reed, but we were quickly told that it was tried in practice and Reed was still our best option. However, I recently read that the experiment was revisited and Tomlin was impressed. Hopefully Sepulveda can give us a little extra boost on kickoffs as well as the gunners we brought in.