LATROBE, Pa. -- The Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers will hold two days of joint practices this week at St. Vincent College, which hosts the Steelers' training camp.
Wednesday's session will kick off at 2:55 p.m. ET, followed by a practice Thursday (5:30 p.m. ET) and a preseason game Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET) at Heinz Field.
To preview the joint practices, ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Mike Rodak (Bills) and Scott Brown (Steelers) answer three questions on their teams.
What has been your biggest storyline of camp?
Rodak: Far and away it's been the development of EJ Manuel. Entering his second season, the pressure is on Manuel to take the Bills to the playoffs. He has more help this season than he did as a rookie. The Bills, as we all know by now, traded their 2015 first-round pick to move up for Sammy Watkins, who has been everything as advertised so far. Watkins has been Manuel's best friend on the practice field, snagging everything thrown his way and stretching the defense vertically. While Watkins hasn't necessarily lit it up in preseason action (three catches for 21 yards in two games), there are no worries about him. The questions remain with Manuel and his abilities as a pocket passer. He took a step forward in last Friday's preseason win in Carolina, but he's been inconsistent in camp. Manuel can find Watkins for a big gain on one play, but then drive onlookers mad by patting the ball and taking a sack on the next play.
Brown: I’d have to say it is how much younger the Steelers have gotten, particularly on defense. Eight projected starters on that side of the ball are 27 years old or younger, and rookie Ryan Shazier has already won the starting job alongside Lawrence Timmons at inside linebacker. Shazier headlines a draft class that has created quite a buzz. Second-round pick Stephon Tuitt will start sooner rather than later at left defensive end. Third-round pick Dri Archer is an electric and versatile playmaker who will line up all over the field. Fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant, Watkins’ teammate at Clemson, has a chance to develop into a big-time wide receiver, and could help right away. I have eight of the nine Steelers’ 2014 draft picks making the 53-man roster, and the rookies have indeed shown that much promise during camp.
What is one important question that your team could answer in these joint practices?
Rodak: Is the offensive line's struggles simply a matter of practicing against their own, ferocious defensive line? The Bills' front line hasn't done a great job protecting Manuel in practices this summer. Outside of center Eric Wood, a team captain, there a question marks abound. Seventh-round pick Seantrel Henderson has filled in nicely for Cordy Glenn at left tackle, but he's been prone to rookie mistakes. Left guard Chris Williams is out with a back injury, while right guard Kraig Urbik -- a former Steeler -- is being pushed for his job by rookie Cyril Richardson. Finally, right tackle Erik Pears looks to have kept his starting job, but only by default, as second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio has been a disappointment so far. The offensive line has been dominated at times by the Bills' defensive line, which had three Pro Bowlers last season (Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, and Marcell Dareus). If they have breakdowns against the Steelers' defensive line, which will bring a different 3-4 look, then their protection issues extend beyond the talent across the ball in Buffalo.
Brown: How much improvement the Steelers have made along the offensive line. I can’t remember the last times hopes were this high for the Steelers’ offensive line, and that is due to the investment they have made in a unit that general manager Kevin Colbert used to be accused of neglecting. Since 2010 the Steelers have used two first-round draft picks and two second-rounds selections on their offensive line and three of those players will start this season. The Steelers also hired offensive line coach Mike Munchak last January, and he is expected to bring everything together up front. The first-team offensive line played well in limited snaps in the Steelers’ preseason opener last Saturday night. Now the coaches get to see how it fares against a Bills team that is stout up front and plays a different scheme than what the offense is used to practicing against. The two practices should give the Steelers a better gauge of where they are up front.
Who are a few players on your team that the opposing club might be looking down on the roster to say, "Who is that?"
Rodak: He's been a star of "Hard Knocks," but wide receiver Chris Hogan has been rising steadily since OTAs. At 6-foot-1, Hogan is a former college lacrosse player who brings some toughness to the Bills in the slot. He's not as short and shifty as a prototypical slot man like Wes Welker, but Hogan's hands are among the surest on the team. He also has some speed and can stretch the field vertically. He's been running with the first team and should continue to be in the mix this week. On defense, I'd look out for cornerback Nickell Robey. At 5-foot-8, 165 pounds, he's the smallest player on the team but plays as tough as any defensive back on the roster. Robey went undrafted last season but won the Bills' nickel cornerback job and was part of an underrated defense led by former coordinator Mike Pettine. You might see Robey disrupt the pocket as a blitzer, but he also has a knack for being around the ball, and should make for a compelling, competitive match-up with Lance Moore in the slot.
Brown: The No. 1 player would probably have to be inside linebacker Sean Spence. It was, after all, a preseason game against the Bills almost two years ago when Spence ripped up his left knee and had to be carted off the field. His career hung in the balance in the aftermath of a devastating injury and even his own position coach, Keith Butler, later said it would be a miracle if Spence over played again. But watching Spence during his first camp since that injury you would never be able to tell he had torn several ligaments, dislocated his knee cap and sustained nerve damage. Spence has emerged as one of the storylines of camp, and the 2012 third-rounder could really help the Steelers this season. Bills coaches may also be asking about Jordan Dangerfield even though the hard-hitting safety spent training camp with Buffalo last season. Dangerfield as consistently flashed in practice, and he is among the longshots who appears to be putting themselves in position to make the 53-man roster. The separation among the contenders and pretenders as far as making the team has started this week, and the two practices against the Bills will help the Steelers’ coaches in their evaluations.