Coach Mike Tomlin and his staff have put more into this preseason game than any of the others, and so it's only natural that they expect more from this preseason game than any of the others.
The Steelers will host the Atlanta Falcons at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 27 at Heinz Field in the third preseason game for each team, and as Tomlin said, "It's the kind of test we need."
The preseason opener against the Washington Redskins was a below-the-line performance by the Steelers in just about every aspect, and then things picked up rather considerably in the team's subsequent outing, on Aug. 18 against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Steelers broke camp the day before the Eagles game, and upon returning to their practice facility in Pittsburgh, Tomlin exposed the team to a normal in-season week of preparation leading up to Saturday's kickoff. This also is the preseason game where the front-line players will see the most action, and for the Steelers it's also the preseason game where the most time was spent preparing the team for what Tomlin refers to as situational football – third downs, red zone, goal-to-go, etc.
"(Situational football) always is (important), and in this game particularly, because we've spent time in preparation in that area," said Tomlin. "When you invest time you want to see the results in that investment. We've prepared for situational football more than we did the first two. So we expect the execution in that area to be better."
But since it still is the preseason, everything is done under the guise of player evaluation.
"We are just trying to work on the development of our team," said Tomlin. "This is a big step for us, and for a lot of people the clock is ticking, in terms of some men making a statement or a move. They are well aware of that. I am anxious to see what they are capable of doing."
There are a couple of specific individuals along the offensive line who fall into the category of "anxious to see what they are capable of doing." One of those is fourth-year pro Tony Hills, who will start at right guard against the Falcons, and the other is rookie Marcus Gilbert, who figures to start at left tackle in place of Jonathan Scott (hyperextended knee).
"Marcus Gilbert will be given an opportunity against a top-quality player in (Falcons defensive end) John Abraham and others," said Tomlin. "They picked up (defensive end) Ray Edwards in free agency. (Defensive end) Kroy Biermann is a top-quality player. Gilbert and the other tackles are going to be presented with high-quality challenges, which is what you look for this time of year."
At the outset of training camp, Gilbert was something of a disappointment because an early hamstring injury kept him off the practice field through the first preseason game. Gilbert began practicing in pads after the team returned from Washington, and he got thrown in at left tackle against the Eagles when Scott went down. But then he also hyperextended a knee, which forced the team to move Hills out there from right guard. Gilbert returned quickly from the knee injury, and it seems as though he'll get playing time with the first unit this Saturday.
"He's been on the up-and-coming since a rocky beginning, like a lot of guys have rocky beginnings," said Tomlin. "He has marched back relatively well, and we are pleased with what we are seeing from him. But it must continue."
Tomlin expressed a similar sentiment about Hills as he continues to push for a starting job. Thrown in at right guard against the Redskins, Hills showed enough to ear a start there against the Eagles, but then his time at that position with the first group was cut short by the injuries to Scott and Gilbert. Hills will start there against the Falcons, but Tomlin wasn't about to anoint him as anything more than a candidate.
"No, he just didn't get an opportunity to show what he's capable of last game at that position because of what happened at left tackle and him having to give us some service in that area," said Tomlin about Hills. "We're going to stay with the commitment of giving him the opportunity to show what he can do at right guard. He's earned that, and we are anxious to see what he is capable of doing. That battle by no means is over."
INJURY UPDATE: Tomlin would rule out only cornerback Ike Taylor (thumb). He listed the following players as questionable: CB Cortez Allen, WR Jerricho Cotchery, ILB Mario Harvey, CB Bryant McFadden, WR Emmanuel Sanders and T Jonathan Scott.