Preseason Week 2: Previewing the Pittsburgh Steelers

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Game Info: Thursday, August 16th, 7:00 PM CT. 69th Annual Midwest Shrine Game- The Packers are 35-30-3 All-Time in the Midwest Shrine Game series’ history.

Odds: Green Bay -5.5; Over/Under 42.5

Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Record: 13-3 (1st in AFC North, Divisional Round: L 42-45 vs Jacksonville)

Head Coach: Mike Tomlin (12th NFL Season as HC, 124-67, 3-1 against Green Bay. Only loss is from Super Bowl XLV)

All-Time Series: Green Bay Leads Regular Season (18-16), Postseason (1-0) and Preseason (14-10)

Key New Additions: ILB Jon Bostic (FA- Indianapolis), FS Morgan Burnett (FA- Green Bay), Safety Terrell Edmunds (1st Rd. Pick, 28th Overall- Virginia Tech)

Key Injuries/Inactive: QB Ben Roethlisberger, QB Landry Jones, WR Antonio Brown, DT Cameron Heyward (All Rest). RB Le’Veon Bell (hold out), OG Ramon Foster (knee), TE Vance McDonald (foot). 

The Pittsburgh Steelers visit Green Bay to take on the Packers in what may be Aaron Rodgers only preseason display. The Steelers have won the last five regular season matchups against the Packers and while this one won’t count in the record books it will be an excellent measuring stick opportunity for the Packers to square off against a top AFC Contender, regardless who is suiting up come Thursday night. The Steelers opened their preseason last Thursday in Philadelphia against the defending Super Bowl Champion Eagles and handled them quite easily, winning 31-14. WR Juju Smith-Schuster picked up where he left off in his impressive rookie season by hauling in a 71-yard touchdown reception from QB Landry Jones in the opening quarter. The Steelers defense forced three turnovers and held to Eagles to 2/10 on third down. With only three weeks to help determine many roster battles in Green Bay, this match up against Pittsburgh will provide some critical tape for the coaching staff to evaluate. Here are some key things to keep an eye on:

Can the Packers QBs Have a Repeat Impressive Performance?

QB1 Aaron Rodgers is likely to play, at least that was the goal stated by Mike McCarthy earlier in the week. Thursday night would be his first action at Lambeau Field since a 35-14 dominant victory over the Chicago Bears 322 days ago. The battle to who is listed behind him on the depth chart is heating up. Against the Titans last week, the Packers’ trio of Brett Hundley, DeShone Kizer and Tim Boyle combined to go 25/47 for 356 yards, three touchdowns and only one turnover, which was caused by Hundley getting pummeled as he released the football.

The Steelers defense finished the 2017 season ranked fifth in the NFL in team defense and will provide a much stiffer test than the middle of the league Titans defense did last week. The Steelers front seven can cause havoc with OLB TJ Watt and the team stuck a lot of resources into their defensive backfield adding former Packers FS Morgan Burnett and drafting Terrell Edmunds in the first round of the draft. Paired with cornerbacks Joe Haden who is determined to bounce back from a below average season and third year man Artie Burns, a former first round pick out of Miami (FL).

The Packers’ receiving group made the QBs look good as rookies Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown along with practice squad/training camp stud Jake Kumerow rose to the occasion combing to haul in 12 receptions for 238 yards and two touchdowns. A key to the backup QBs performance will be how these young receivers not named Adams or Cobb perform on their end to try and replicate their season debuts. Kizer was able to show some of his elusiveness and Hundley looked to have a good rhythm with the first team offense and Boyle displayed his touted rocket arm but Steelers’ Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler will likely mix up schemes even more so than the Titans did a week ago at Lambeau Field.

Can the Packers’ Defense Take Advantage of the Steelers’ Struggling Offensive Line and Young Quarterbacks?

With Roethlisberger and Jones sitting out the spot light will be on third round draft pick Mason Rudolph from Oklahoma State and second year QB Joshua Dobbs, a former fourth round pick out of Tennessee. On the Packers’ side of the field, top pick CB Jaire Alexander should make his preseason debut after sitting out last week with a minor groin injury. Fellow rookie CB Josh Jackson has been receiving rave reviews as a guy who can play multiple positions for Mike Pettine’s defense. CB Davon House needs to make a statement to show he still belongs. House has been rumored to be a guy on the bubble with the emergence of Lenzy Pipkins.

While Pettine’s scheme was mostly vanilla in the first game there is a good chance he will turn the dial up a bit to see what he has in OLBs Kyler Fackrell, Reggie Gilbert and Vince Biegel as the trio jockeys for playing time behind Clay Matthews and Nick Perry. The Packers’ defensive line is all but set and is arguably the best overall position group on the roster. Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry can continue to build off their solid play last season and even take a step forward with big free agent Muhammad Wilkerson and second year big man Montravius Adams.

Rookie ILB Oren Burks looked comfortable against the pass in the preseason debut but against the run was another story. Against the formidable Steelers’ running attack of James Connor, Stevan Ridley, Fitz Toussaint and rookie Jaylen Samuels. After Connor there is an intense battle brewing because once star running back Le’veon Bell reports back to the Steelers, one of them will need to be released. Bell has been holding out of training camp for the second straight year. With the season ending injury to ILB Jake Ryan, the Packers’ are already thin at ILB. Behind Blake Martinez and Burks are only second year man Ahmad Thomas who was cut by Oakland last November and Undrafted Free Agent Greer Martini. If Burks doesn’t impress Thursday night look for GM Brian Gutekunst to start scouring even more so for ILB help (outside of his presumed negotiations for Raiders All Pro Middle Linebacker Khalil Mack, who is currently holding out in Oakland).

The Tight Ends and Special Teams Units

The Packers utilized five different tight ends last week (only Jimmy Graham was inactive) and the group collectively caught two balls for a total of 17 yards. While Graham and Marcedes Lewis are locks to make the roster there were some rumblings that Emanuel Byrd would give veteran Lance Kendricks a run for the third spot. However, it seems apparent that Kendricks is safe for now as he has been noted as having a good camp while Byrd’s two targets last week against the Titans fell incomplete.

On special teams Rookie punter JK Scott (5th round draft pick) has been known to hit some booming punts thus far in practice which have captured some of the Packers’ media pundits to make note of his doings quite frequently on Twitter. While Mike McCarthy would prefer to keep his punter on the sideline, it would be nice to get some more work in between Scott and Long Snapper Hunter Bradley (7th round draft pick) on punts and on field goals and extra points as Scott is the holder for the 12th year veteran Kicker Mason Crosby.

The return game is also up for grabs, as last year’s return specialist Trevor Davis finds himself on the receiver bubble, it could open the door for Jaire Alexander to flash his return skills he had while at Louisville. While Davis finished third in the NFL in punt return yard average in 2017 (10.7 yards per return) he hasn’t been able to get on the field due to nagging injuries and after the Packers’ spent three draft picks on receivers and the emergence of Kumerow, Davis’ days in green and gold are in jeopardy.

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