Throughout the 2010 NFL season, Coach Mike Tomlin will provide his insight and observations to Steelers.com on a variety of topics pertaining to the team and the National Football League.
Q. What's your primary concern as kickoff to the regular season approaches?
A. Just the normal things that go with the first game – the speed of the game picks up quite a bit, the extended amount of time that your front-line players are going to play because as fatigue sets in you're likely to make errors. Those are the normal things that concern you as a coach going into the opener. You don't want to beat yourself, and so penalties and mental errors and things of that nature are a concern.
Q. OK, the flip side – what gives you comfort as the season approaches?
A. That we have quality people who are good football players. I've enjoyed this process to this juncture. I think we have a genuinely close football team, and I look forward to watching them put their collective efforts together.
Q. The captains were elected: Heath Miller and Hines Ward for offense; James Farrior for defense; and Keyaron Fox for special teams. Should anything be read into who wasn't elected?
A. The players vote on it, and those were the guys recognized by the football team as being worthy to represent us at the coin toss and as leaders and captains. I respect that element of it. Democracy has spoken.
Q. Are the captains the players who are the closest to you?
A. I have an unofficial tribal council of veteran guys who hang out with James Farrior, and I run things by them from time-to-time. It's your usual suspects – Hines Ward, James Farrior, James Harrison and the like. By all means, my door is open to all players. When you're trying to do what we're trying to do, which is to be the very best in the world, there's no such thing as a bad idea. I'm all ears to anything that'll help us be the best we can be.
Q. How different is your offense without Ben Roethlisberger?
A. We're going to gear our offense to fit the skills of the 11 people on the field. The quarterback is a part of that. Dennis Dixon has some skills that are unique to him, and we're going to accentuate those things. We're going to try to tailor our plan to minimize the negative aspects of his game at this point.
Q. Did the decision to start Dixon, once Byron Leftwich was hurt, make itself, or did you really have to ponder it?
A. It essentially made itself when Byron got hurt. Injuries are a big part of this thing, and a lot of decisions end up being made based on injury. It was an easy decision, based on that standpoint.
Q. Do you expect the Atlanta defense to try to attack Dixon?
A. When you have a young guy who can run, that's a catch-22. If he finds an escape lane, it can hurt you and hurt you bad. Those are the questions I'm sure the Falcons defensive coaches are pondering this week, and we'll get the answer to that shortly.
Q. Is Dixon on a short leash?
A. Not at this juncture. We're not going to proceed with extreme caution in that regard. We want to play, we want him to play. We don't want him worried about things of that nature.
Q. Who will handle the kick returning against the Falcons?
A. We're going to let Antwaan Randle El return punts. We have a level of comfort there with a veteran guy. We have a lot of young guys doing a lot of critical things for us, and so we want that to be a security blanket area. Antwaan has done it for a long time, and he's capable of doing it at a high level. We'll have a combination of Mewelde Moore and Emmanuel Sanders as kickoff return men.
Q. Might that dynamic change from game to game?
A. Absolutely. At this juncture of the season – the first time out – you don't want too many young guys doing too many things for you in September football. We're going to ease our way into that. We have some talented young guys like Antonio Brown, and the chapter is not closed in terms of opportunities for him. The first time out, I tend to go with old reliable.
Q. The Falcons had only 28 sacks last year. Have they fixed that problem?
A. I think they have, and they've done it in a way that I have great respect for – they've taken the players they have and gotten them better. Kroy Biermann, No. 71, is a guy on the come. He was a dominant pass rusher this preseason with 3.5 sacks. He's a much better player than he was a year ago. Chauncey Davis, Jamaal Anderson – they've taken the guys that they drafted and made them improve, and I know that's a signature of Coach Mike Smith's program.