Three Things to Watch at the 2015 Hall of Fame Game: Terry Bridgewater will be limited, first look at early-rounders, and the LeBeau-less Steelers defense.
The last team to qualify for the playoffs after winning the Hall of Fame Game, the NFL's annual pre-season opener, were the Steelers in 2007. This Sunday night, Pittsburgh will be making its sixth appearance in the game and first since knocking off the Saints eight years ago.
Minnesota's last trip to Canton, Ohio came back in 1997, when this exhibition took place in late July. The Vikings beat Seattle in that game, 28-26, and later made a post-season trip as a wild card.
Those final outcomes are merely coincidental, of course. All things considered, the Hall of Fame Game is the least meaningful contest on the NFL's grueling pre-season calendar.
But it's still football, which means people will tune in. Here are three things to watch if you do:
1. A few snaps for Teddy Bridgewater: Vikings coach Mike Zimmer told the Pioneer Press last month that Adrian Peterson "probably" would not see any pre-season carries, despite missing most of the 2014 season. Peterson definitely will not get the ball in Sunday's matchup.
The Steelers are easing off the throttle, too, as teams playing in this exhibition often do—remember, both Minnesota and Pittsburgh have five pre-season games this year instead of the usual, already cumbersome four. Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are all expected to sit out the Hall of Fame Game, further lessening the star power.
Bridgewater will be the main remaining draw, assuming the Vikings follow through with their plans to get him a little work. The second-year QB told reporters this week he has "no idea" how extensive his game action will be. Last year, the Giants' Eli Manning actually played the entire first quarter of this game, while Buffalo pulled then-starter EJ Manuel after two series.
It'll be just a peek, but plenty of eyes are on Bridgewater because the Vikings are expected to jump into playoff contention this season. While Peterson's return is atop the list of reasons why, Bridgewater's continued development does not trail far behind.
Sunday also could be our first glimpse at a Bridgewater-Mike Wallace passing combo. Wallace was brought in to be a deep threat for offensive coordinator Norv Turner's scheme. Should he suit up against Pittsburgh, don't be surprised if Turner dials up at least one downfield shot.
2. Early look at the early-rounders: Pittsburgh used its first two picks at the 2015 draft on defenders (OLB Bud Dupree and CB Senquez Golson). Minnesota did the Steelers one better, hitting up the defensive side of the football in each of the first three rounds (CB Trae Waynes, LB Eric Kendricks and DE Danielle Hunter).
Four of the five should see the field Sunday night, the lone exception being Golson, who is sidelined indefinitely with a shoulder injury. The Steelers recently traded for ex-Eagle Brandon Boykin, the latest indication that Golson's return could be weeks or months away.
His teammate, Dupree, will want to make a strong first impression. He's trying to push veteran Arthur Moats for playing time at Pittsburgh's left OLB spot; Jarvis Jones and James Harrison are penciled in on the other side. If nothing else, Dupree could steal some passing-down work from Moats, who proved valuable last season against the run.
The Vikings are willing to be patient with Hunter, but Waynes and Kendricks are very much in the starting mix. Kendricks and Audie Cole are battling for the starting middle-linebacker job, while Waynes has to climb over Captain Munnerlyn or Terence Newman if he's to be a regular contributor.
Where Waynes lines up Sunday will be of note—he has seen time during off-season workouts in the slot, where Munnerlyn plays. Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer might give his rookie CB a handful of snaps each inside and outside this weekend.
3. The LeBeau-less defense: Dick LeBeau served as the Steelers' defensive coordinator from 2004 until he announced his resignation on Jan. 10 of this year. Pittsburgh ranked first in total defense five times and during his tenure. At its best, with the likes of Troy Polamalu and a younger Harrison flying around, LeBeau's zone-blitzing, 3-4 attack was as tough a scheme as there was to prepare for on a week-to-week basis.
With an aging defensive corps, though, Pittsburgh struggled to maintain that excellence over the past two seasons, dropping to 13th in defense for 2013 and 18th a year ago—the two lowest finishes of LeBeau's Steelers career.
Enter Butler, an assistant with the team since 2003. His challenge is to tweak Pittsburgh's defense so it better fits the personnel and can be more effective matching up against the abundance of spread-based offenses currently featured within the NFL.
Two ways he has promised to accomplish those goals: 1) By having the secondary play more zone coverage; and 2) Featuring a more hybrid approach up front, mixing in a 4-3 with the Steelers' usual 3-4.
Odds are, Butler will not be too creative with his defensive packages on Sunday—teams tend to play it relatively close to the vest in the pre-season as it is, let alone when they're putting this extra game on tape for their regular-season foes.
Still, this is the semi-official start of a new era in Pittsburgh. How will it look?