Steel Mill A.M.: Five Steelers in the spotlight in game against the Vikings
Be it a new role, a matchup that needs exploiting or an opponent strength that needs neutralized, here are five Steelers players to keep an eye on during Sunday's 1 p.m. game against the Minnesota Vikings:
1.DL Tyson Alualu
Signing Alualu – by definition, a backup – was one of the bigger splashes the Steelers have made in free agency in recent years . And he was brought in almost explicitly just for this situation: for the defensive line to avoid suffering a precipitous drop-off when one of its starters is out. Stephon Tuitt is not expected to play Sunday because of a biceps injury.
Alualu did exactly what the Steelers envisioned he'd do when he stepped in for Tuitt for virtually all of last week's win at Cleveland. Against a significantly better offense, much more experienced quarterback (assuming Sam Bradford plays; he's questionable because of a knee injury) and a far more talented running back this time, a stingy defensive line is all the more important.
2. DT Dan McCullers
While Alualu would do the heavy lifting in Tuitt's stead, it would be McCullers who would literally replace Tuitt in the Steelers' lineup. Big Dan admitted he was a little salty at being deactivated last week, saying, “Yeah, it was motivating. It gave me motivation for this week in practice.
“The Vikings run the ball a lot, so it's going to be a big opportunity to show my run-stopping skills, and I'm ready.”
The 6-7, 352-pound McCullers is in his fourth season – the final one on his contract. He was called out by his position coach over the summer and bumped down the depth chart during training camp. Quite frankly, it was a surprise he made the team. At the same time, it was curious he was inactive for Week 1. That figures to change for the home opener.
3. CB Joe Haden
Haden had a satisfying win on the home field of the team that's released him 11 days prior, and he didn't allow a big play in Browns game. However, at times Cleveland's receivers were able to get separation on him. Although DeShonne Kizer didn't take enough advantage of this in his NFL debut, Sam Bradford is nothing if not accurate. So if Haden is not on his game Sunday, the Vikings are more poised to exploit that.
4. C Maurkice Pouncey
Pouncey wasn't bad, per se, in last week's win. But he and his compadres on the offensive line weren't dominant, either. And for a unit that is accomplished and well-compensated (only two teams devote more of their salary cap to offensive linemen than the Steelers), fair or not, more is expected – particularly in the run game. Across the board, the linemen were fairly forthright about that this week, too. Against a stingy Vikings defensive line, getting some push would be welcome.
5. RB Le'Veon Bell
Coincidence or not, last week was one of the least productive games of Bell's career – and it came in his first outing following sitting out most of training camp. While that correlation does not necessarily imply causation, if Bell doesn't have one of his characteristic games in Week 2, the criticism will grow louder.
It will be interesting to see if the Steelers continue to employ formations and personnel groupings that leave Bell off the field, as they did in Cleveland. If Bell believes he's worth more than the $12 million a year he's earning, he'll need more touches to attain the production representative of that kind of salary.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.