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What to watch for in Steelers-Vikings HOF Game

CANTON, Ohio -- We've made it.

Through the haze of a long and winding offseason, we're at the threshold of a new campaign. Football is back -- sort of.

Sunday evening's Hall of Fame Game won't remind anyone of February's wild Super Bowl affair between the Patriots and Seahawks, but tonight's Vikings-Steelers tilt does offer up something special: It's the first taste of a season-long helping of Super Bowl rematches.

After Minnesota and Pittsburgh replay Super Bowl IX in Canton, the NFL will offer up no less than 19 Super Bowl do-overs during the regular season as a celebratory lead up to Super Bowl 50.

Let's get real, though. The Hall of Fame Game is the most minor of appetizers, with both teams playing their starters for mere minutes -- if at all.

Still, there's reasons to tune in. Here's what we'll be watching for:

  1. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told reporters Friday morning that quarterback Ben Roethlisbergerwill sit out, along with a laundry list of veterans including running back Le'Veon Bell, wideout Antonio Brown, center Maurkice Pouncey, tight end Heath Miller and 72-year-old pass rusher James Harrison. It's as though an angry comet slammed into Pittsburgh's practice facility, wiping out anybody with flair. The starter-free lineup, though, turns Sunday's game into a career-defining night for Landry Jones.

With No. 2 arm Bruce Gradkowski still on the PUP list, Jones is expected to play deep into the second half and maybe the entire way. The former Oklahoma star has been a non-factor over two seasons and could lose his third-string job to challenger to Tajh Boyd. "He has had his moments before, but none more definitive than this in this part of his career," quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner said Friday, per Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "He is getting a whole lot of work with (the first string), the (second string) and now is the time to let this all come together."

  1. Landry will be the first quarterback to take on Vikings first-round cornerback Trae Waynes. The No. 11 overall pick out of Michigan State was a combine beast, boasting 4.31 speed, a 38-inch vertical and a 10-foot-2 broad jump score. Waynes has seen work both outside and in the slot this summer after operating primarily as a press-man outside corner in college. He'll play off-man coverage tonight and acknowledged he's still getting used to that, saying, per ESPN Twin Cities: "I never played in off-man coverage. When I did, it was very rare and a different style anyway." Waynes admitted he's "going to be nervous" for his first NFL game.
  1. You probably won't see much from Minnesota's starters on offense, either, but we're hoping for a peek at Mike Wallace and Charles Johnson in their first action together as tandem wideouts. Second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has a nice cast of targets to throw to, and play-caller Norv Turner has a knack for turning receivers and tight ends into fantasy gold. Johnson landed on our Making the Leap list and looked like the team's top target late last season. His arrow is pointing up now that opponents have to account for Wallace's lid-popping speed.
  1. Those Minnesota receivers will face a refurbished Steelers secondary stripped of Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu -- and long-time coordinator Dick LeBeau. We were hoping to see safety Shamarko Thomas, but it looks like he'll sit out with a shoulder injury. With safety Mike Mitchell also nursing a tweaked hamstring, veteran safety Will Allen could see plenty of time along with unproven defensive backs like Gerod Holliman, Alden Darby and Ian Wild. We expect the Steelers to score in droves this season, but the question is whether this raw group of cover men can keep opponents out of the end zone.
  1. If veteran Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams also sits, we'll see plenty from second-year jitterbug Dri Archer. The Steelers need to get their backup runners tuned up with Bell set to serve a two-game suspension to open the year.
  1. Fantasy football heads continue to debate whether Martavis Bryant or Markus Wheaton will become this year's breakout star in Pittsburgh's monstrous passing game. Bryant -- another Making the Leap candidate -- is iffy for tonight after undergoing a procedure to fix an infection around his elbow. Wheaton should suit up and might be in for a big season after Big Ben said "when we're in two-wide receivers, he's our No. 2." Tonight won't settle the Bryant-Wheaton Twitter tussles, but we're about to see a real game, at least. It's about time.
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