LATROBE, Pa. – There is no plan, per se, at least not in the traditional football sense. Nor was there any specific preparation for the opponent in Sunday's Hall of Fame Game – the Minnesota Vikings. But that doesn't mean Coach Mike Tomlin won't walk into Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium with a specific expectation for what he wants to see from his team in this first of five preseason games.
"What we're looking for is simple," said Tomlin. "We know we're not going to play perfect this first time out, but we can't compromise playing hard and playing fast. We're going to cater our menu to allow guys to play in that manner, but it's also their responsibility to play in that manner. We want to see who can play hard and fast when they lack complete certainty in terms of what we're asking them to do. That's all part of this process."
The process, especially at this stage of the NFL calendar, primarily is for the young players, those guys who are still trying to establish themselves as professionals. With an eye toward advancing that process, as well as protecting some of his seasoned veterans, Tomlin said that Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, Heath Miller, Antonio Brown, Maurkice Pouncey, and James Harrison will not play at all vs. the Vikings. Tomlin said more names could be added to his will-not-play list, but that will be determined later based upon the numbers of players healthy enough to participate at each of the various positions.
From the players who do end up getting onto the field for the Steelers, there are certain kinds of penalties that won't be acceptable even though for many of them it will be their first foray into professional football.
"We want to play clean, and by clean I mean no pre-snap or post-play penalties," said Tomlin. "Some of the penalties that occur during the play may be technically related, and we'll grow in that regard, but I see no reason why we can't come out and be sharp from a pre-play and certainly a post-play standpoint from a penalty perspective."
During every training camp practice here so far this summer, the Steelers have had periods devoted to short-yardage, goal line, red zone, two-minute drill, and Tomlin's reasoning is he wants the players to develop a feel for what each of those situations is going to demand from them once the games begin to count in the standings.
"Lastly, I want us to understand situational football: the unwritten rules of the game and how the game changes," said Tomlin. "A lot of what we do is situational. The drills that we construct for them during the course of practice, whether it's pass under pressure, team run, red zone, short-yardage, goal line, you've seen a lot of it over the last couple of weeks. I expect those guys to display the understanding associated with the work they've done. We all acknowledge that the game is slightly different on third down or in the red area, or goal line and-short yardage. We've talked about it. We've done a lot of reps, and we want to see it displayed. Those are the three things that are critical for us in terms of setting a good barometer with this group and some things that we're looking for in the stadium."
Another thing Tomlin will be watching is how some of the rookies can adapt to playing special teams. Because those players are this close to having a job in the NFL, they likely were stars on their college teams, and stars in college often aren't required to play special teams. Now, if those guys cannot contribute on special teams they're more likely to get cut than the guys who can.
"I spent a lot of time with (special teams coordinator) Danny Smith this morning talking about how to utilize and evaluate young guys in the special teams' game," said Tomlin. "We've got some guys who work extremely hard, and this is a significant step in a lot of ways toward playing. We've got some guys who have distinguished themselves offensively and defensively but have very little background in special teams. Guys like Anthony Chickillo, who played defensive line at Miami and was a four-year starter but doesn't have a lot of a special teams background, and Jesse James, an early-out guy from Penn State who played a lot of offensive football there but not a lot of special teams.
"When you think about them, they've carved out a niche for themselves as offensive or defensive players, but what they do as special teamers is going to be equally significant. Those are just two examples of why this game is so significant for young players, and obviously there's a lot more examples than that."
At quarterback, with Roethlisberger already ruled out and Bruce Gradkowski still on the physically unable to perform list, third-year pro Landry Jones will get the start, and Tomlin intimated he will get a lot of playing time.
"You're going to see a lot of Landry Jones," said Tomlin. "He's going to play a lot. We don't have a pre-determined snap count, but we're going to play him until we've seen enough, and then maybe give somebody else some work. (Jones) could play the entire game, or he could play the majority of the game. Our intent is to get a good look at him."
Tomlin said Dri Archer will be the primary return man – for both punts and kickoffs – against the Vikings. Other players mentioned by Tomlin as candidates were Kenzel Doe, the recently signed receiver from Wisconsin; Sammie Coates; and C.J. Goodwin. "But our first priority in both punts and kickoffs will be Dri Archer," said Tomlin.