When Coach Mike Tomlin opened his postgame press briefing with, "That's the end of August football," the only thing missing was a rousing, "Hooray" from the assembled audience.
The Steelers completed a 1-3 preseason with a 10-0 loss to the Carolina Panthers, and about the only certainty to come from the whole exercise is that the regular season opens in 10 days when the Cleveland Browns visit Heinz Field.
The approach during this last month has been to see how players respond to game-type situations without the benefit of the planning and the scouting and the strategy that will be a regular part of their weekly preparation during the regular season. Beginning with the Browns' visit on Sept. 7, the Steelers will prepare for and adjust to opponents in a way that they didn't during the preseason, which calls into question everything we've seen throughout August.
For example, is the Steelers run defense really as bad as it looked this preseason? This is a run defense that allowed a 73-yard touchdown to Giants' running back Rashad Jennings in the first quarter of the preseason opener, and then a couple of weeks later allowed 182 yards via a 5.2 average to the Philadelphia Eagles, and then last night had Carolina's No. 4 running back, Fozzy Whittaker, go for 91 yards on 23 carries. Is it actually going to be like this for the next four months?
The hope is that it won't, but there is little hard evidence to make it anything more than just a hope. But that's the thing about the preseason. It's not that the coaching staff sets up players to fail, but more that the coaches really don't do much to help the players succeed.
"We're trying to get a lot of things done in the preseason," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "We have different agendas, particularly when it comes to certain packages. To be quite honest, we haven't developed a lot of work in terms of schematics in that area. Sometimes our failures in that area are obvious to us and thoughtful to us. We're not overly concerned about it. Our defensive staff has been down the road and back. We'll make the necessary adjustments to fortify that area, but we're not overly concerned about it. Often times we know the situations that we put the guys in going into it, but we want to see what they're made of. That was the situation in that regard. You want to give guys an opportunity to succeed or fail, and then you want to make the necessary decisions accordingly."
Tomlin was speaking specifically about the issue of the success opponents have had running the football against the Steelers' nickel defensive alignment during this preseason. The Eagles, specifically, used personnel groupings to entice the Steelers into their nickel, and then they ran the football with great success.
But because it happened during the preseason, well, it might not be what it seemed.
"Preseason is a lot different from the regular season," said Jarvis Jones. "There is no game-planning. You'll see a lot of football out there just being played. In the regular season, there is game-planning. There's a whole lot more structure."
Preseason football becomes a matter of not necessarily believing what you see, good or bad, because preseason football has a different agenda. The purpose of it is to evaluate individuals, to see how individuals handle success and respond to adversity and react to fatigue. Winning the game is nice, because you want to win every time they're keeping score, but in the preseason winning isn't about whatever it takes. The whatever it takes starts in 10 days.
And so, that's why it's worth celebrating the end of the preseason, because since the preseason doesn't count in the standings, what you're seeing isn't necessarily real. Maybe the bad will get better. Maybe it actually turns out to be worse. Maybe the good turns out to be a mirage. Maybe it's a harbinger of what's to come.
There's really no way of knowing for sure, because it's the preseason. But as of today, the preseason is over. Hooray.