After highlighting the offense, naturally, the next post is about the defensive players to watch in tonight's preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Different side of the ball, but generally the same kinds of questions exist for the Steelers' defense in 2012. Veteran talent is there, younger guys will fill in a few spots, and it will be interesting to see how they blend together.
1. SS Troy Polamalu - During minicamp, there were some reports that Polamalu didn't look quite like the thoroughbred he usually does during the season, but at the same time, he doesn't usually attend minicamp, so we don't really have a basis of comparison. Training camp would shrink the waistline of even the most stubborn bodies, but it'll still be interesting to see Polamalu in motion. Let's not forget his interception of QB Michael Vick last year, who proceeded to chop Polamalu's legs out on the return. Polamalu said after the game he wasn't upset, but it's got to make players worry when your franchise quarterback is not only being required to tackle on a play but his level of skill in that regard could injure both of them.
2. LB Sean Spence - Something of a surprise on draft day, the Steelers took Spence, and essentially declared the days in Pittsburgh of size mattering for linebackers is over. Spence is the size of a big safety, and has the athleticism of one to boot. He's said to be an outstanding student of the game, and could even see time this year in sub packages along with special teams duties.
What to Watch: In what situations is Spence playing? While it may not be with the first team right away, it's likely he'll get snaps at the mack linebacker position and maybe even the buck, where he has practiced a bit so far this camp. You can probably tell pre-snap which position he's playing by where he lines up. The buck is probably going to be more on the strong side against most formations (although that's not the definition of the position), but post-snap, if he's attacking the line and filling a gap, he's playing the buck. If he's flowing to the ball in a pursuit angle, he's playing the mack. Pay particular attention, though, if the Steelers are in nickel, and see how he drops into pass coverage. His pass coverage skills and which receivers he's handling will be big reasons why he either sees the field on defense or not in 2012.
3. NT Steve McLendon - There's lots of excitement surrounding McLendon, particularly as defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell spoke highly of him this off-season, unsolicited. He's got great strength, and if he can improve his technique, there's no reason to think he won't be an outstanding player at a critical position within this defense.
What to Watch: On running downs, see how well he holds the point of attack (i.e. where he is on the line of scrimmage when he first makes contact). Does he have good leverage? Is he low? Does he move his man back? It'll also be instructive to see his initial read of the play, and how he follows it. The Steelers got gashed on zone running and chop-blocking a few times last year, which isn't something the Steelers will see at all tonight but his ability to recognize those plays will dictate how often teams try them again this year.
4. CB Cortez Allen - This year's Jersey To Buy, Allen is amid a battle with fellow draft classmate Curtis Brown for nickel back duties, and possibly even incumbent Keenan Lewis for a starting spot. Allen is showing signs of becoming an outstanding all-around cornerback, possessing great size and quickness. How he's improved this off-season will be one of the stories written about tomorrow across Steeler Nation.
What to Watch: It's likely he'll get time covering the slot as well as the outside, but what's important is what formations Philadelphia's offense is in. CB William Gay started on the outside last year for the Steelers, but in nickel, he moved inside to cover the slot. It wouldn't be surprising to see Allen have a similar kind of role. How strong is he against the bigger receivers? Does he square up on tight ends? Can he keep pace with smaller, faster receivers around the field? Much of this will depend on what's likely to be a very vanilla game plan for both teams, but getting a glimpse of Allen as an athlete should be a key story moving ahead into the season.
5. LB Chris Carter - The second year all-go-no-quit rush OLB gets his opportunity to shine tonight with the absence of James Harrison and Jason Worilds. Carter showed an explosive first step last season, but didn't play very fast, meaning, he looked tentative in his movement. His size becomes a major factor if he doesn't play decisively, but that's nothing just about any rookie wouldn't struggle with. He's had a full off-season to go along with his year of experience, and could turn some heads before the preseason is over.
What to Watch: He tried to bull rush his way to the passer almost exclusively in very limited action last season, so watch on the first obvious passing situation he's in (3rd and long). Does he have another move? It wouldn't take Dick LeBeau to see he needed to compliment his arsenal of evasion techniques, and perhaps he did just that. Harrison wasn't the tallest OLB in the league, either, and he did pretty well for himself when he learned to use his lack of height and flexibility to get underneath tall tackles and just slide underneath them. Carter's strength will also be interesting. When he gets locked into a tackle, is he able to shed the block and find the ball? In the very unlikely scenario neither Harrison nor Worilds are able to play in Week 1, you can bet on the Broncos running at Carter the majority of the game. The Eagles won't do that tonight, but watching a few of the first runs in his direction will give you a pretty good idea of where he is in his development.