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Some lessons only games can teach

Posted Aug 10, 2013

Allen Iverson’s opinion aside, there is indeed value to practice, but in the NFL what separates the prospects from the suspects is how they play in games. And for so many of the approximately 1,200 players currently on NFL rosters who won’t be come Aug. 31, the preseason is when they’re going to be getting their game experience.

The Steelers open their preseason at 7:30 tonight at Heinz Field against the New York Giants, which means the curtain will rise on the team’s 2013 draft class.

There has been quite a measure of anticipation when it comes to this Steelers draft class, and while for fans it has to do with what these prospects have shown they can do, for the team’s evaluators another healthy dose has to do with who these prospects have shown themselves to be.

Jarvis Jones, Le’Veon Bell, Markus Wheaton, Shamarko Thomas, Landry Jones, et.al., arrived at Saint Vincent College with some skills that should translate nicely to the professional version of the sport, and they all also seem to know what they don’t know. That’s all well and good, but so far the sampling has not exceeded the confined boundaries of a training camp practice. It’s time for the next step.

“Practices are a very structured environment, a scripted environment, if you will, not only for the essence of time but just for the efficient work. When you step into a stadium, it’s unscripted,” said Coach Mike Tomlin. “Their innate football understanding comes out. Their ability to play the game comes out. And we’re going to find out things about these men that quite frankly we don’t know right now.”

The Tennessee Titans opened their preseason on Thursday night, and during that game, rookie receiver Justin Hunter, a No. 2 pick, caught a third-down pass beyond the yard marker but lost the first down when he circled back in an attempt to gain more and was tackled.

“(The coaches) were waiting for me,” Hunter said after the game. “They were very mad. They were trying to get me to understand that when it’s third down, get what you can and get down. You have to get the first down. I was trying to get more than what I had. I should’ve gone down.”

This is an example of what Tomlin was talking about. An example of what he was trying to teach during a practice last week when Jarvis Jones batted down an attempted swing pass to Baron Batch. Tomlin reminded Batch to make sure he retrieved and covered the ball because maybe the official rules it a lateral. Tomlin calls them the “unwritten rules of football.”

“Just certain things that you don’t practice in a practice setting. You work punt return, you work on the return and very rarely does the ball fall short to create a situation where people need to get away from the football. ‘Peter, Peter’ is called and there is urgency associated with that. That’s an in-game nuance. Maybe some people can innately get away from the ball quickly. Maybe some people are less aware. Those are the types of things and information you learn in game-like situations that you don’t pick up in practice situations where those things are, quite frankly, more scripted.”

Tomlin has said the plan against the Giants is to get all four quarterbacks some in-game action. Ben Roethlisberger figures to be limited to fewer than a dozen snaps, and it’s reasonable to expect veteran backup Bruce Gradkowski to follow with a similar workload. That would leave the rest of the game to rookie Landry Jones and John Parker Wilson, a fourth-year pro without an appearance in a regular season game.

But since Wilson has participated in a couple of preseasons, this will be old hat to him. Not so with Landry Jones, and how he comports himself will reveal some things about his qualifications for the job that the Steelers will be seeing for the first time.

Things like getting the play-calls and communicating them in a correct and timely fashion. Do timeouts have to be burned? Delay of game penalties? Fumbled exchanges? Because if the quarterback is unreliable in these management-of-game issues, the offense has no chance.

“(Jones) has done some good things, but obviously what he does in stadiums is really going to be the litmus of where he is,” said Tomlin. “This is a guy who threw for 16,000 yards or whatever, in college. So, the throwing of the football or the mechanics of the position, particularly in a practice setting, is not going to be foreign to him. He’s going to be able to represent himself rather well in structured environments. But playing a game in a stadium with a live rush and those things, I think we’re going to find out a lot about where he is after Saturday night.”

As well as finding out some things about the group vying to be a part of the 2013 Steelers.

Asked what he wants to see from his team in the preseason opener, Tomlin said, “That we go out and we play football, and we don’t have one mistake become three mistakes. I want to see our ability to put negative plays behind us and move forward individually and collectively, and that’s what is going to determine whether this is a positive outing or not. With so many young guys and particularly the ones getting their first opportunities, I think that’s going to be an important element of it. We’re going to talk openly about that leading right up to kickoff.”

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