Hall of Fame Game Preview + Free Pick
by Robert Ferringo - 08/04/2007
Raise your hand if you are giddy with excitement thinking about Michael Irvin giving a speech at the National Football League Hall of Fame induction ceremony weekend in Canton, Ohio (Right now I am nearly falling out of my chair raising both arms.)
For me, this entire weekend will be a complete waste of time if Irvin doesn't stroll up to the podium in a long fur coat and a fedora, with a Mexican hooker on each arm, hopped up on several grams of Bolivian cocaine, and tell everyone that he is the greatest football player of all time in the broken English that only he can muster. After that, I'm hoping Irvin will turn to Troy Aikman and claim that he was the real reason the Boys won all of those titles - and than tell Aikman that he banged his girlfriend.
Let me take that back; the weekend won't be a total failure if I don't get my Dream Speech out of Irvin as long as I hit on my plays on the Hall of Fame Game between New Orleans and Pittsburgh. The game marks our first opportunity to wager on "real" football since the Pro Bowl in February. It kicks off at 8 p.m., on Sunday at Fawcett Stadium in Canton. The Steelers have been installed as a 2.5-point favorite, with the line reaching 3.0 at several online books. The total opened at 35 but has already dipped a full point.
Now, I can't tell you which team I like in the game because it's privileged information. Well, not that privileged because you can find out for $29. But I can share a bit of insight on how I handicapped the game. Remember, breaking down a preseason game is a completely different animal than approaching a game during the regular season. There are certain indicators and trends that we need to focus on that aren't usually considered during the regular season.
New Orleans is coming off a dream season in 2006. They brought back 20 starters from last year's squad, adding depth in free agency and the draft, and retained their entire coaching staff. By all indications, Drew Brees has looked sharp in camp and the offense figures to be a well-oiled machine. Also, the NFC has won eight of the past 12 Hall of Fame Games. New Orleans should be confident and smooth to open the game.
Conversely, this will be the first game as a head coach for Pittsburgh's new leader, Mike Tomlin. It's also the first game for new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who was the former OC for the Cleveland Browns from 2001-03. The Steelers will be without starting running back Willie Parker (knee) as well as linebackers James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons, and are going to be running both their usual 3-4 defense as well as some new 4-3 looks. Don't be surprised if some toes get stepped on.
Now, you would think that the familiarity and cohesion that the Saints have would be a tremendous advantage. And to a certain extent, it is. But at this stage it actually may restrict them. Head coach Sean Payton already knows what his guys can do. This game is actually one of five tune-up games the Saints have before the season starts. Because Payton has experience and confidence in his guys he won't want to burn them out or risk injury any more than he has to in what is essentially an extra outing.
Tomlin, on the other hand, will likely be looking to make a statement with his first game. He's been running a brutal training camp, pushing his veteran team with rough, physical practices. Again, it's all about setting the tone and marking your territory. I recently read an article in which it said that Tomlin considers himself a "you play the way you practice" kind of guy. I think as a result that what the Steelers lack in system understanding they will make up for in tenacity and aggressiveness. How Tomlin approaches this game is a key factor, and I think that he's going to go all out.
But will it make a difference? I suspect that the New Orleans first teamers will be better off than the Pittsburgh first teamers. However, preseason games are no different than regular season games in that they are both won and lost in the fourth quarter. The distinction is that in the preseason it comes down to third- and fourth-string players, the most important of which are the backup quarterbacks. This is an area where I feel like the Steelers have an edge.
Steeler backups Charlie Batch and Brian St. Pierre have each been in Pittsburgh for at least three years. They know their receivers and have plenty of experience. The Saints have Jamie Martin, Jason Fife and Tyler Palko. By all accounts, Fife and Palko have been a wreck in training camp. Nearly 60 percent of scoring in the Hall of Fame Game over the past 15 years had taken place in the second and fourth quarters - the express domain of the backups and the back-back-backups. It's possible that the Steelers will hold an advantage in these two areas, but it may not make a difference if the Saints first team puts up two or three quick scores.
Which brings me to my free pick for the game:
Take 'Over' 34.0 New Orleans vs. Pittsburgh. (8 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 5)
From what I can gather, both Brees and Ben Roethlisberger have looked very good in training camp thus far. The Saints are already very comfortable in their system, so I'd be surprised not to get a touchdown or two out of their first and second teams in the first half. Pittsburgh will be without Parker, so I get the idea that Arians will try to air it out. When he was the OC in Cleveland, Arians' teams averaged 25.0 points in their first preseason game. The average number of total points scored in those three games was 52.7, which would put us comfortably over the posted number.
The 'over' has hit at 57 percent over the past 15 years and the games have sailed over this total in three of the past five seasons. I mean, these two teams combined for nearly 80 points in the regular season last year. I anticipate more of the same.
This should be an enjoyable game. I fully expect to hit on my selections, but the bottom line is that football is back and what's most important over the next five weeks is to get a good feel for the teams, the spreads, and the public perceptions of both. Clearly it's great to pad your roll before the Real Season starts, but working the systems and sharpening the instincts could end up paying even bigger dividends.
Questions or comments for Robert? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out his Insider Page here.