By Christian S. Kohl
With Kickoff Weekend just a few weeks away, NFL fans are once again abuzz with excitement and anticipation of the upcoming season. Two organizations hoping to return to glory after mediocre performances last season are the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Football Giants. The former Super Bowl Champions are both working hard to recapture that magic in the upcoming year. The question is, who will bounce back?
These two teams play a very similar brand of football. They sport highly competent quarterbacks who mitigate mistakes and make plays when on their game. They both man the helm of primarily run-first offenses despite featuring generally outstanding WR packages. Both teams also play aggressive, physical defense, whose hallmarks are quarterback pressure, forcing turnovers and marquis players getting injured frequently.
Injuries are huge keys for both of these franchises, far more so than many others in the league. Both organizations have rosters full of key playmakers with extraordinarily checkered injury histories that completely color their chances for success. If Jason Pierre-Paul or Troy Polamalu manage to play 16 healthy games this season, that completely alters the outlook of their respective teams. Quite simply, the impact players on the defenses of the Giants and Steelers are so, well, impactful, predictions rest almost entirely on their ability to remain on the field.
From an offensive perspective, Pittsburgh will have to adjust quickly to the absence of Mike Wallace. His vertical threat, in tandem with Roethlisberger’s refusal to ever go down, forced defenses to account for large chunks of real estate that were often impossible to defend. While the Steelers receivers still sport wheels, their attack will center around intermediate routes and precision far more so than the flag football elements of survival and deep ball heaving. With the absence of Wallace, the Steelers no longer sport a receiver corps more fearsome than the Giants.
Giants receivers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks are both outstanding, but nobody can seem to ever account for how much Hakeem Nicks really cares about football. It remains unclear if his ailments are true injuries, or bangs that tougher receivers would endure. Is his ability reflective of his work ethic, or is he an enormous talent who fails to fully realize his abilities? Such question marks do not gel well with a coach like Tom Coughlin, and the friction between the two may well intensify as the year rolls on.
For my money, the youth and creativity of Tomlin gives Pittsburgh a slight edge over the Giants this year. Should things go pear-shaped, Coughlin is less likely to adjust and throw his playbook away as Tomlin is to grasp and account for changing variables on the field week to week. The quarterbacks on both teams are undeniably steady, and they will need to remain so as the ground beneath them constantly shifts underfoot. Both divisions are replete with other teams utterly riddled with question marks, and a divisional title is there for the taking in both cases. Look for Pittsburgh to grit its teeth, bear down and deliver in crunch time to nose past the rebuilding Ravens and other unsteady franchises of the AFC North. Pittsburgh sneaks past the Giants this week.
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Christian S. Kohl is a sports contributor for CBS Local Digital Media.