Steelers step into minefield

Saturday, August 23, 2008
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

This evening brings the Steelers the dreaded third preseason game, the annual danse macabre in which the starters are placed directly in harm's way for the longest shifts of the working summer, in this case amplifying the likelihood of a season-altering collision occurring inside the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.

Even within such a skittish context, coach Mike Tomlin said this week that there couldn't be a better team for the Steelers to play at this stage than the Minnesota Vikings, and, while that might be true, so is this: there couldn't be a worse one, either.

The Vikings boast seven Pro Bowlers, a half-dozen high profile free-agent acquisitions, all kinds of Super Bowl aspirations, and a potentially dangerous excitability. It's no wonder NFC North rival Green Bay did everything but call in Amnesty International at the prospect of Brett Favre winding up in Minneapolis.

The Steelers needn't worry about anybody in this neck of the NFL woods once the regular season starts, but there's plenty to be concerned about on this side of midnight.

Let's start with Jared Allen, the NFL's top sackmaster last season with 15.5, who'll line up against Marvel Smith on the blind side of $102 million quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Allen was spending his typical offseason, hunting red stag in New Zealand, black bear in Idaho, and wild boar in Texas, when suddenly the Vikings pulled off the kind of trade that occasionally can make the offseason something other than, um, a wild bore.

Just days before the draft, the Vikings sent their first-round pick (No. 17) and two third-round picks (Nos. 73 and 82) to Kansas City, prying loose Allen and his 43 sacks since 2004 (more than anyone except Dancing With The Stars finalist Jason Taylor).

That's what passes for a blockbuster, or did at least until the Packers sent Favre to the New York Jets in a training-camp deal thick with more contingencies than the Paris Peace Accords of the early 1970s.

Tonight, Allen joins fellow All-Pros Kevin Williams and Pat Williams along Minnesota's four-man defensive front opposite the Steelers' All Pro-less offensive line, the one with an as yet unidentified starting center, the one with the left guard who has all of two professional starts on his resume, the one that has to solidify into something viable sometime between tonight and Sept. 7.

"I hope [Allen] is going to play right defensive end and that he stays there," Tomlin laughed this week. "If they start moving him around, we're going to have to make some adjustments."

The coach has a two-pronged razor of a problem. His starting o-line, at this stage of its development, will be overmatched tonight, but it also needs all the work that can be said to be prudent. In getting that work, the risk to Roethlisberger and others is substantially increased.

By next Thursday, when the Steelers meet the Carolina Panthers in the final preseason appointment, most relevant conclusions about this team and its extended roster already will have been made clear. If the starters break a sweat at all that night, it will be in warm-ups.

But for the moment, Tomlin can't be comfortable with the most recent video of Allen tormenting Baltimore Ravens quarterback Troy Smith last Saturday in Minnesota's second dress rehearsal. In the second quarter alone, Allen threw Smith to the lawn twice, once for a one-yard loss, another 12 yards from scrimmage. Escaping Allen's grasp a third time, Smith ran for 18 yards in pure terror.

The prospect of Roethlisberger playing the Troy Smith role tonight isn't terribly palatable around here, but such is the uncomfortable nature of the NFL summer. This isn't baseball's Cactus League or the Grapefruit League. This is the grapefruit-sized contusion league, if not considerably worse.

Tomlin said his starters would play at least the entire first half tonight, as will everyone who usually rotates into the various sub packages. After that, the coaches will play it by ear. At least, Tomlin won't have to worry about Troy Polamalu, who still hasn't hit anyone in the preseason and was characterized as very questionable for tonight.

I don't see much downside in Polamalu not playing until the Houston Texans get here.

The other staple of preseason Game 3 is to show something a little more elaborate than you've put on video so far, if for no greater purpose than to make your first regular-season opponent spend some time game-planning for something you have no intention of using anyway.

If Tomlin can do that, get out of downtown Minneapolis with his starters in once piece and work his offensive line further toward competence, he'll have directed the kind of late August Saturday that is remembered for absolutely nothing.

Which is only exactly what you want.