By BOB LABRIOLA
LATROBE, Pa. – Mike Tomlin is a realist. He knows it's the preseason opener. He knows there are going to be blown assignments and mental errors, and maybe even some guys awed by the experience of their first NFL game.
Tomlin is a realist, but that doesn't mean he has no expectations for his team when it opens its preseason on Thursday night against the Arizona Cardinals at Heinz Field.
"More than anything, we're just concerned about coming out and playing the game extremely fast and extremely hard," said Tomlin. "We realize we are not going to play perfect, but we've got to have a Steelers kind of tempo in our play. We can't be tentative; we are going to talk to the guys about that. Of course, we hope that produces a winning performance for us."
Winning certainly is the goal, even in the preseason, but because these games don't count in the standings the object is to try to win them in a certain way. The front-line players, both on offense and defense, figure to be on the field for only a series or two. There will be no game-planning, and the play-calling by both coordinators will tend toward the simple to put the emphasis on guys finding ways to win their one-on-one battles all over the field.
"The big thing is that you want guys to come out and play with great tempo and play with speed. That being said, you run some core stuff that you know they are going to be familiar with," said Tomlin. "It's going to be some first-time opportunities for some guys out there and there are going to be motions and things of that nature that are going to be a factor. So we are going to put some base football in all three phases – stuff guys are capable of executing because that's what we want to see them do. We want to see them execute at a high level. We're not interested in tricking Arizona to be honest with you, we want to play good assignment football so we can see who can play football."
That is the primary purpose of Thursday night's session for Tomlin and his staff. They have spent one minicamp, 14 OTAs and now 13 days at Saint Vincent College with this particular group, and the time is going to come soon enough when the herd must be culled. Certainly, the evaluation process has been ongoing, but games mean more.
And it's time for some games, because it's at the stage where guys going against the same competition in the same drills on the same fields under the same conditions has gotten stale.
"It's that point in the process, and I am a guy who appreciates the journey," said Tomlin. "We have done what we had to do here for 10 days or so. It's been good, and now it is that time in the process where we take the next step and get a little more information. Turn the heat up just a little bit on the process, and of course there is some excitement that comes with that."
STEELERS NOTES: While Tomlin wouldn't rule out anyone from participating in the game against the Cardinals because of injury, all indications are that neither Justin Hartwig (toe) nor Darnell Stapleton (knee) will play. That would make Doug Legursky the starting center … Tomlin also said rookie receiver Mike Wallace will get the first opportunity to return kickoffs, and he indicated it could be rookie Joe Burnett getting the first crack at returning punts … After Ben Roethlisberger is removed from the game, Tomlin said the hope is that Charlie Batch, Dennis Dixon and Mike Reilly all will see some action.
MICHAEL VICK REDUX: With the Washington Post and Profootballtalk.com both reporting there are five teams interested in signing Michael Vick, Tomlin was asked if the Steelers were among those. "I'll say the same thing that I said last time in regard to free agency. If people are capable of helping us win, we are going to have a level of interest in those guys. I am never going to discuss free agents individually. I don't think that is appropriate, I think that is fruitless and I think that conversation can be endless. If I start a conversation about Michael Vick then I would start a conversation about Plaxico Burress and everybody else who turns up on the wire at some point. We do our due diligence and evaluate and look at potential guys who are capable of helping us win, guys who have a capable skill level. He is one of them, so we are doing our due diligence."