It has come to be accepted that a team's third preseason game – or the fourth preseason game for any team lucky enough to get to play five – is the one treated most as a regular season game. Largely, that is because of the amount of playing time allotted to the regulars, but there will be some other issues at work there when the Steelers visit Buffalo for a Saturday afternoon tussle with the Bills.
"In a lot of ways, this is like a mock in-season week for us," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "or at least that's the way we are presenting information to the guys. From a planning standpoint, it doesn't fully represent the in-season work we put it, but we do want to represent the process."
The Steelers are in the minority as one of the teams still to go away for training camp, and the adjustment required in leaving the controlled environment of a college campus and returning to the big city is something Tomlin isn't taking for granted as he and his staff of assistants continue the evaluation process.
"I've spoken lot about the singular focus that is easy to be gained at Saint Vincent College, and the great continuity and comfort we have there," said Tomlin. "A lot of intangible values come from guys sitting around telling stories at 10 or 11 p.m. It's a beautiful thing. As we get back here, however, it's more like the season. We get our work done, and guys get in their cars and go their separate ways. I want to see how they respond to that change, individually and collectively. It's always a big part of this stage of the journey."
Who is mature enough to use their free time in the evenings to prepare themselves for the next day at work is something Tomlin is watching, and he has admitted that to some degree he allows the players to fend for themselves to see how they respond.
"In some instances I'm very direct in terms of what I expect from them from their down-time and their time away from the building," said Tomlin, "but largely I want to see how they handle it as well."
Tomlin would not commit to a decision on whether newly-signed backup quarterback Mike Vick will see his first playing time as a member of the Steelers, instead saying he wanted to see how the final practices sessions unfolded before making a call on that one way or the other.
As for the Bills quarterbacks, Coach Rex Ryan is conducting a three-way competition for the starting job. For Saturday's 4 p.m. game vs. the Steelers, Ryan said E.J. Manuel would start but that Matt Cassel and Tyrod Taylor also would get repetitions with the first-team offense.
Tomlin said the Steelers starters "will play in similar ways that they have already this preseason. Some guys will get more work where we think they need it, and some guys won't."
In terms of the injured players, Tomlin did rule out defensive end Stephon Tuitt (ankle), but he wasn't ready to do so with any of the other walking wounded. Included in that group are inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons (toe) and Vince Williams (hamstring), safety Ross Ventrone (ankle), safety Mike Mitchell (ankle), and cornerback Cortez Allen. Williams was able to practice for three straight days this week, Allen practiced on Thursday, and Mitchell spent Thursday in a walking boot.
And the element of the game that becomes more important as the preseason progresses is special teams. Tomlin plans to be watching that closely.
"We have significant battles happening on special teams," said Tomlin. "Our punters are going back and forth and that will be fun to watch. We have to continue to take a look at a number of coverage guys and guys who have an opportunity to state a case for themselves. The strongest statements they can make for themselves in these next few weeks is probably in the special teams game. For those reasons, I'm excited about watching them play."
Tomlin also addressed a number of other issues during his news conference:
On players preferring a shorter preseason:
"I don't care what they prefer. We just play the schedule we get. We had five this year, and I'll take it. I imagine we will have four next year and I'll be talking about taking those. Some of the things we spend a lot of time talking about are irrelevant. They are out of our control and a waste of time. We don't have control over the schedule, who we play, when we play, or where we play. Our job is to show up ready to play."
On whether rookie tight end Jesse James has bounced back from the dropped passes in the Hall of Fame Game:
"His arrow has been pointed up and he's had a lot of room for the arrow to be pointed up. You get to learn about a guy when they have to deal with sub-par performances. He hasn't blinked and still bring a can-do attitude. He has responded in a positive manner. There's a lot of football left for him to state the case for himself."
On Maurkice Pouncey and his chances to go on IR/designated to return:
"Obviously he has a chance. We will have more information as the initial recovery from the surgery subsides. Everyone feels good about the surgery, but I haven't seen a surgery that everyone didn't feel good about at this juncture."