Can you believe it? After a disappointing end to the 2010 season and a lockout that seemingly lasted forever, true football has finally arrived. The 2011 NFL season will start with a bang on Sunday, when the Pittsburgh Steelers clash with their fiercest rivals in a heavyweight bout at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. It's Ravens week!
The official start to 2011 comes after an encouraging preseason that saw fierce position battles, young stars emerging in the spotlight, rookies fighting for roster spots, and veterans easing into midseason form. The end result was a 3-1 record, thanks in no small part to the valiant efforts of Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger, among others.
But after last week's game against the Carolina Panthers, the clocks reset to zero. As we all know, preseason counts only to evaluate individual performances and while we were spoiled by plenty of those in the past few weeks, they don't provide a clear picture of what our 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers will look like. Questions from the offensive line to cornerback remain open and have to be answered before the teams officially kick off the regular season at 1:00 p.m. EST.
But it's Ravens week! A win against our hated neighbors to start off the season would leave a sweet taste in many a yinzer's mouth. How can it be accomplished? Here are my Five Players to Watch in Sunday's season opener against the Baltimore Ravens.
5. Doug Legursky, Right Guard, #64, 5th Career Start
4. Isaac Redman, Backup Running Back, #33, 3rd Year
3. Bryant McFadden, Cornerback, #20, 51st Career Start
You all knew it was coming. Bryant McFadden is one of those guys Steelers fans love to complain about, as quarterbacks often look toward the 2005 second round pick to complete their passes. Playing injured through the majority of last season, McFadden struggled at times to stay with his receivers and gave up some game-changing plays - such as last early last October, when he bit too early on an outside route and got beaten badly by Ravens wide receiver TJ Houshmandzadeh for the game-winning touchdown. Ever since then, the discussion about McFadden's worth rages on.
But as some on this site have pointed out repeatedly, McFadden is a perfect fit for the Dick LeBeau-led Steeler defense. He is as sure of a tackler as they come, plays the run well, and rarely gives up the big play when healthy. Yet that last part should be underlined, as McFadden sat out the majority of camp and preseason what looks like with the same Achilles injury that limited his effectiveness last season. Coach Tomlin has declared him ready to go for the opener, and the Steelers better hope that he is. Against the Ravens, fellow cornerback Ike Taylor will likely spend the majority of time covering newly acquired deep threat Lee Evans, leaving McFadden against Anquan Boldin. Boldin's physicality will be a direct test for how healthy McFadden truly is. With Derrick Mason and Todd Heap departing the Ravens this offseason, look for Joe Flacco to find a new safety outlet over the middle and the 6-1, 223 pound receiver fits the bill. McFadden will need to bring his A game to keep Boldin from having a big game.
2. Jonathan Scott, Left Tackle, #72, 10th Career Start
If you face the Ravens, you better have an answer for Terrell Suggs. The four time probowler is one of the stars in Baltimore's defense, making a living by getting to the quarterback and disrupting the offense. And the Steelers answer to Terrell Suggs is: Jonathan Scott? The sixth year veteran was brought over to Pittsburgh by new offensive line coach Sean Kugler before last season, and was thought to be merely a utility backup for the tackle positions. But after left tackle Max Starks went out with a season-ending injury, Scott filled in at left tackle and after a rocky start actually performed decently.
Well, outside of playing the Ravens, that is. When the two teams faced off in the 2010 divisional round, Suggs dominated Scott with 3 sacks and essentially set up a tent in the Steelers' offensive backfield. Starks' release this offseason assured that the 6 foot 6, 318 pound Scott will be our starting left tackle in 2011, and he will face his toughest test in the very beginning against the Steelers' divisional rival. Not only will he have to protect Ben Roethlisberger to ensure the latter can throw the ball to all of his talented wide receivers, Scott also will be asked to block extensively in the run game when the Steelers attempt to run the opposite direction of Haloti Ngata. If he can hold his own as the Steelers coaches trust him to, he can go a long way to helping Pittsburgh start into the season with a W. But if he repeats his performance from last year's playoffs, I predict many Steeler fans having nightmares of Sauron's Mouth after the game.
1. James Harrison, Outside Linebacker, #92, 72nd Career Start
James Harrison - need I say more? The 2008 defensive player of the year has put fear into the Raven's hearts ever since that now-legendary breakout game at Heinz Field in 2007 when he blew up Baltimore for 9 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 1 interception. It won't help the Ravens that 'Deebo' will line up against newly acquired Bryant McKinnie, the left tackle who was cut by the Minnesota Vikings after reporting to camp overweight. Harrison makes a living taking advantage of big left tackles with his extraordinarily low leverage, which further works to his advantage against the 6 foot 8 McKinnie.
In seasons past, the mere mention of this match up would have Steeler fans and players salivating. Yet, worries about Harrison's health status have overshadowed any potential excitement over #92. The four time NFL all pro had two offseason back surgeries, prompting him to miss the majority of training camp and preseason. The injury bothered him throughout the latter half of the 2010 season, yet showed little effect as Harrison recorded four sacks in three playoff games including a three-sack effort against the Ravens in the divisional round. One would hope that a repaired back feels better than an injured back, which would bode well for the season opener against Baltimore. But reports keep surfacing that Harrison is not back to game shape quite yet after his limited repetitions in the past weeks, leading to many fans worrying about his effectiveness in the beginning of the season. One caveat: During his press conference on Tuesday, Coach Tomlin stated his belief that Harrison is just "sand-bagging" and will be as effective as ever against the Ravens. If that holds true, look out Baltimore.