LATROBE, Pa. – In all ways, training camp is a scripted operation. When you eat, when you sleep, when you're in meetings, when you're practicing, and what you're doing in those meetings and during those practices is planned and timed out and put on a schedule that's then handed out to everyone and followed as rigidly as possible.
But if you're in the business of professional athletics, games aren't like that. In games, things happen that force individuals and teams to react, to improvise, and then to overcome. The teams most capable of doing those things are the ones that end up contending for championships.
For the last two weeks, the Steelers have been living a scripted existence here at Saint Vincent College, but at 7:30 p.m. on Friday night at Heinz Field they will open their preseason with a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And even though it's still a glorified practice in that the outcome doesn't count in the standings, there will be no script, which makes it a good evaluation opportunity for Coach Mike Tomlin and his staff.
"To see who can rise up in that environment," said Tomlin about what he's hoping to learn from this preseason opener. "We have been playing controlled football in a training camp setting – prescribing down and distances and field position and situations. It's going to be really good to see who can take the skills they've displayed here or learned here and put them in a real fluid football environment, and think and play on their feet. I think those are the things all teams go through as we take this first significant step.
"You'll know more about the group, both individually and collectively, after this," added Tomlin. "We know that, and we're excited about it."
As has become the custom all over the NFL, many starters do not participate in their teams' preseason openers, and the Steelers are expected to follow that formula as well. Tomlin said that Josh Dobbs would start at quarterback, and then Mason Rudolph would follow him. The division of labor was undetermined at most of the other positions except for the kicking responsibilities, which Tomlin said will be handled on an alternating basis regardless of circumstance.
"(It will be) business as usual in that some fundamental things are really important to us as we go into this game," said Tomlin. "Some of those fundamental things are blocking and tackling, playing with urgency, and also displaying an understanding of situational football. We've touched on a lot, particularly during the last couple of weeks at Saint Vincent, in terms of developing that understanding of situational football and putting that understanding on display and making plays appropriately. And also, just the natural playmaking, the things that come from being in a game environment, guys being able to rise up in the moments. It's obvious that when you're working in a stadium, that is weighted differently."
Preseason games may not count in the standings, but they are where jobs can be won or lost, where roles can be defined, where a team's identity can begin to reveal itself.
"We're really excited about the fundamental element of play though," said Tomlin. "We need to play as penalty free as we can. We understand what that means at this time of year. Part of it is just that awareness of knowing and understanding situations. It's going to be a litmus test for us. It's that time. We've competed against ourselves. It's time to stand in front of someone less familiar and do so at Heinz Field."
STEELERS NOTES: Tomlin wasn't prepared to rule anyone out of the game because of injury. "We're not going to exclude anybody from potentially participating in the game from a health standpoint. I know there have been a number of guys who have missed a day or two. I'm not going to exclude any of those guys. We're going to remain hopeful knowing that the opportunities to play in stadiums are few and far between. We're going to try to be as inclusive as we can be in terms of participation. There will be some established veteran guys who won't play in the game, and that really has less to do with them, but it's really about providing snaps and seeing guys we don't know a lot about."