Typically, NFL head coaches will let their starters play a full half in the third preseason game. Some will even let younger players that are expected to contribute go a little longer. This means that when the Saints face the Steelers in the Superdome tonight, we can expect to get a much better idea of what the team will look like early in the 2016 regular season. Are the offensive woes real? Can the offensive line play better or are we in for a long half for Drew Brees?
This is also a chance for New Orleans' seemingly improving defense to measure its growth against one of the NFL's most potent offenses, led by Big Ben, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and company. To learn more about the Steelers, we asked a few questions to Jeff Hartman, editor of our Steelers sister blog Behind the Steel Curtain.
Canal Street Chronicles: The Steelers have been a contender the past two seasons, finishing with 11-5 and 10-6 records respectively, while making the playoffs each year. However, they also exited the postseason somewhat early in 2014 and 2015, failing to reach the AFC Championship game, which they last got to in 2010. What is a reasonable expectation for the team this season? What will be an acceptable/unacceptable result at the end of the 2016 NFL season?
Jeff Hartman: Both within the locker room, and the fan base, there is a "Super Bowl or Bust" mentality. In those years you mentioned, there were always areas which were glaring weaknesses. Weaknesses to cause pause with the team possibly winning it all. However, this year they have the offense to get the job done, and a young athletic defense seemingly on the verge of being an upper tier unit. If the Steelers don't win it all, I think everyone invested will be extremely disappointed.
CSC: Could you give me one young Steelers player on offense and one on defense respectively that Saints fans probably haven't heard about yet but should be paying attention to during this preseason game?
JH: Offensively it would be second year WR Eli Rogers (No. 17). Rogers was undrafted from Louisville in 2015, but broke his foot in training camp, ending his season. He has returned in 2016 and has been making a lot of plays this preseason. He has done enough to essentially lock up a roster spot, and now he looks to show he can get the job done with Ben Roethlisberger at the helm. As for the defense, you can look at the team's young defensive backfield for the answer. Ross Cockrell and Sean Davis (rookie) are both in starting roles without much experience. The 30th ranked pass defense in 2015 is relying on them to help the unit bounce back.
CSC: What are the expectations this season for Ben Roethlisberger? As good as he has been throughout his career, he seems to get hurt or injured often and missed four full games last year. How long can he maintain the high level he is playing at right now?
JH: If he stays healthy he is as good as anyone in the league, and that includes Brees, Brady and Rodgers. The issue has always been his health. If he can stay healthy the Steelers should be on the fast track to a top seed in the AFC Playoff Picture. If he doesn't stay healthy it could be a tough row to hoe for the black and gold.
CSC: If you could have your pick of one offensive and one defensive Saints player respectively to join the Steelers right now who would you take and why?
JH: Offensively, I've always liked Brandin Cooks. He reminds me a lot of Antonio Brown, and has drawn praise from the Steelers top wideout. I can just imagine what a WR corps with Cooks, Brown, Martavis Bryant, Sammie Coates and Rogers would look like....impressive. Defensively it is tough, but I did like Sheldon Rankins coming out of college. He would be a great compliment to the Steelers front seven.
CSC: In the preseason, this third game is the so-called preseason "dress rehearsal," so even though the game's final score means very little, what lessons/information are you looking to take from this game against the Saints?
JH: You want to see the starting units put their best foot forward. The Steelers rarely play any starters in Week 4 of the preseason, so you want to see some game planning, clean plays with quality results. Minimize the mistakes you've seen throughout the first 2 preseason games and be the best you can be leading into Week 1.
Many thanks to Jeff for speaking with us. For more coverage of the Steelers, check out the work of Jeff and his crew at Behind the Steel Curtain.