The second to last game of an NFL preseason is typically the closest thing to a regular season contest the teams will experience during exhibition play. With the deadline to cut roster sizes down to 75 looming, regulars will see more playing time to establish continuity and those trying to escape finding a pink slip in their locker will be fighting for so much more this weekend as the Steelers travel to Buffalo to take on the Bills.
However, the Pittsburgh Steelers will face a few other formidable foes other than the red, white and blue-clad opponents from upstate New York. New challenges have emerged in the past week making matchups this week go even deeper than your typical position versus position confrontation.
From at least three significant injuries coming out of the Green Bay Packers game last Sunday that led to new player signings to the flaming-hot controversy of one such signing and another young player making a bonehead decision leading to a four-game ban, there have been lots of things to debate about in Steeler Nation this week. The Bills game can't come too soon, as we begin to see how things start to play out and get sorted out.
For both teams, rosters will begin to take specific definition and the following 5 key matchups will be crucial to establishing the critical make-up of both AFC squads.
Key Matchup #1
WR Sammie Coates vs RCBs Stephon Gilmore or Roald Darby
Purely in jest, I wonder if Coates bought Martavis Bryant the weed (or whatever the substance that got him suspended), because no one has more to gain from Bryant's absence than Coates. The rookie from Auburn has not been spectacular in camp, but he shows signs of brilliance and skill that could elevate him to being a very productive player in this league.
The absence of Martavis looms big. The Steelers offense averaged 18.5 points per game before Bryant was activated into the lineup and 32.2 points per game after his ascension. His presence on the field made defenses have to account for him at all times.
The 6-foot 1-inch Coates, who has amassed 122 yards on 8 catches for 15.5 yards per catch in three preseason games, can move up the depth chart with a good showing against standout Gilmore and fellow rookie, Darby.
Gilmore has collected six interceptions in his three seasons in Buffalo and is very tough in coverage. But he needs to look over his shoulder, because Darby, the second rounder out of Florida State, has two picks and five tackles in two games of professional action.
No matter who of the two No. 14 lines up opposite of, it will be a telling test against stiff competition. An emergence to prominence by Coates would make the Steelers receiving corp a juggernaut and very difficult to defend.
Key Matchup #2
C Cody Wallace vs RDTs Marcel Dareus or Corbin Bryant and LDTs Kyle Williams or Stefan Charles
With the Steeler's All-Pro Center Maurkice Pouncey out roughly 10 weeks due to a broken fibula, Wallace has the inside track to start in Pouncey's stead over the newly signed Doug Legursky. Wallace, who performed admirably as a starter in late-2013 and 2014, will be under the microscope filling in for Pouncey. Pro Bowlers Williams and Dareus will offer up a stringent test for Wallace to show he can handle the load. With Legursky, a starter in Super Bowl XLV, waiting in the wings, Wallace needs to be on point.
Dareus, in four seasons, has 28.5 sacks. While Williams has a career 34.5 sacks as a Bill. Whoever lines up opposite Wallace, you know that there will be pressure. That's what you get when a Rex Ryan defense is involved.
Key Matchup #3
RDEs L.T Walton and Niko Davis vs LTs Cordy Glenn and Daryl Johnson
With Stephon Tuitt's ankle sprain, both Walton and Davis have a chance to turn heads and earn roster spots. They both have been mentioned in a positive light by coaches. Walton has three tackles in exhibition play, while Davis has collected one. Glenn is Buffalo's starter on the blind side, so an impressive showcase against Glenn will be a major advantage to whoever is able to win their one-on-one matchup.
Key Matchup #4
RCBs Cortez Allen and Brandon Boykin vs Whatever receivers Rex Ryan lets dress
Allen's troubles on the field last year are well documented and a main reason that Boykin was acquired from Philadelphia last month. The two defensive backs have been engaged in a tight battle for the right cornerback spot this preseason.
So far, Allen has been healthy and has shown more confidence and smoother play in camp, while Boykin has shown supreme ball skills since arriving in Pittsburgh.
Both have a chance to shine this weekend, as Rex Ryan has indicated that Sammy Watkins, Percy Harvin, Robert Woods and Chris Hogan will not play against the Steelers. Basically, the players left are battling for the fifth wide receiver spot. Marquice Goodwin (5 catches for 53 yards), Deonte Thompson (4 catches for 96 yards) and Chris Gragg (3 catches for 53 yards) lead the remaining receivers on the Bills roster.
Key Matchup #5
QB Michael Vick vs The Bills Defense, Steeler Nation and a whole bunch of other stuff
The Steelers signing Michael Vick, possibly the most polarizing figure ever to set foot in a Pittsburgh locker room, dominated all forms of media this week. Many Steeler fans were up-in-arms over the decision to bring the controversial figure into the fold. It wasn't just his infamous past that people opposed. It was his age, his being left handed, his not being a pocket passer, his penchant to sustain injury, his decline in production and, quite possibly, his preference in the Drake/Meek feud.