It's the preseason finale, but it's not the "preseason finale" of yesteryear.
Before the NFL adjusted its annual schedule of games to include three preseason games and 17 regular season games, the fourth (or for the really unfortunate teams, the fifth) preseason game had an identity all its own. Following a full training camp and at least three preseason games, the final preseason game was something to be endured, or in rare occasions it was something that became part of folklore if it turned into an opportunity used by a nobody from nowhere to shock the world, squeeze onto a roster, and launch an NFL career.
In the process of that happening, or not happening, nobody else played, at least none of a team's front-line people and sometimes not even top backups made it onto the field. And those who did had their pads off and were sideline spectators before halftime and then for the rest of the game. And god forbid that the "preseason finale" would go into overtime, or even threaten to go into overtime.
Not so anymore. With the new scheduling format, the preseason finale will be just the third time the Steelers have competed against someone other than themselves, and it will happen at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday at Acrisure Stadium vs. the Detroit Lions.
In the old days, Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown wouldn't play, but on Sunday, Coach Mike Tomlin said all three quarterbacks currently involved in the competition to replace Roethlisberger would get into the game, that Najee Harris would get his first carries of the preseason, and if Mitch Trubisky, Kenny Pickett, and Mason Rudolph were going to be in the game, it only made sense that Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and George Pickens would be playing as well.
"You know, we're staying true to our mindset in terms of the preseason," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "Those who are injured, we going to leave the light on for them up until the 11th hour. We'll be optimistic and inclusive about their participation. We're preparing all three quarterbacks to play – it'll be Mitch, Kenney, and then Mason. I don't know how much exposure each will get. It's really determined by the number of snaps and if we have a level of success in terms of possession downs and time of possession, things like that. But obviously, we're going to continue to get a look at those guys as they state a case for themselves and others."
The Steelers currently are carrying 80 players on their roster, and by 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 30, they must have cut that down to 53 players. And so while there will continue to be a focus on picking the starting quarterback, and getting Harris some carries, the Steelers figure to be tested in other ways, and with jobs or roles hanging in the balance.
In terms of possibly finalizing some evaluations on individuals in advance of those decisions, Tomlin said the Steelers did more in the way of game-planning for this opponent than they had in either of the previous preseason games.
Friday's final practice in pads before meeting the Lions focused on situational football and possession downs – third downs, red zone, goal-line – that often serve to be the difference between winning and losing.
"We need to give those our attention. We need to have great detail and display greater understanding, and hopefully, it shows in our play," said Tomlin. "That's our intention here on Sunday, as we start leaning in on some of this stuff where we've got a hardcore game plan and a definitive division of labor, and so we're excited about that."
Following Friday's practice, Tomlin was asked whether he was pleased with how the offensive line had responded this week to that below-the-line performance last Saturday night in Jacksonville, and he insisted he had a wait-and-see perspective on that.
"We're measured on performance, and so seemingly this has been a good week, but we'll turn on the tape from Sunday and judge it that way because that's how we're always judged," said Tomlin. "I don't care about the work I've seen (in practice); I care about the performance on Sunday. That's all that matters. We can talk ourselves into feeling good based on what transpires out here (in practice) or feeling bad. The reality is when the lights come on, we've got to do the job. And so, I judge weeks, not only in regards to the offensive line, but all of us based on how we perform in stadiums."
In addition to looking for a bounce-back game from the offensive line, there also will be interest in the run defense that finished last in the NFL in 2021, a phase that the Lions exploited last season during a regular season game that ended in a 16-16 tie.
"Get your camera ready," said Tomlin. "We're game planning to play football this week. And that's one of the components that's got our attention."
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