It's mid-December, and the Steelers are a 9-5 team with an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot on Sunday with a victory over the Kansas City Chiefs at Heinz Field. But in some ways, it's still training camp for Coach Mike Tomlin.
It's not training camp for Tomlin in the sense there's a lot of experimentation going on with personnel and/or schemes, but it's training camp in that jobs still can be won or lost based on recent performances both during games and in the preparation phase for those games.
"As we prepare for this game, the process for us is one that is becoming routine," said Tomlin at his weekly news conference. "We don't need to look outside our stadium this week. Our challenges are inside our stadium. For the fourth week in a row, since our bye week, we're playing a team that's vying for playoff contention. There's a certain amount of urgency that goes with that. I think our guys are getting used to the process of preparing for these big performances, and hopefully it's something we're getting better at doing, more efficient at doing. That will allow us to play free and fast once we get into the stadium."
The Steelers' focus was tested during their recent trip to Atlanta in Tomlin's eyes, and he was pleased with how the younger players on the team responded.
A road trip is always a phenomenon, because wherever the Steelers go – even overseas or to Mexico – there is a large contingent of fans there to greet them at their hotel. But a game in Atlanta is different. As a hub in the southern portion of the country, Atlanta is easily accessible and airfare is reasonable, which allow the families of players from that part of the country a good chance to gather for a football game.
Steelers Nation Unite members rewarded as Steelers fans make their presence known at the Georgia Dome.
There always are a lot of Steelers fans congregating at the team hotel on road trips, but in Atlanta that group swells considerably because of the number of family and close friends. And those are people who have much more access to the players than typical fans.
"There were a lot of interesting things that occurred in Atlanta," said Tomlin. "I just liked the way our young guys in particular wore the urgency of the moment. We had great fan support, not only at the stadium but there was a lot of activity at our hotel. I just thought, largely, our group took it in the right way and used it as positive fuel. It was a springboard for us as we went into the stadium to play."
Regardless of the aesthetics of that performance, the Steelers' was good enough to get out of the Georgia Dome with a victory, and a victory is what the team needed to put itself into the position in which it now finds itself, that being able to clinch a playoff spot for the first time since 2011.
Because of the influx of young players and the general roster turnover the Steelers have endured over the past few seasons, there are a number of guys who've never been in a situation of playing for a division title and a playoff spot, and there are another group who've never been in this situation with the Steelers. And Tomlin said playing time on Sundays will be allocated to the prepared.
Last week for example, Marcus Gilbert practiced fully on Thursday and Friday and even took repetitions with the first unit. He was inactive against the Falcons, though, and Mike Adams started his third straight game.
"We just watched (Gilbert's) participation over the course of the week, as we outline every week when we say we'll let their participation over the course of the week be our guide," said Tomlin. "We allowed him to participate. We watched that participation, and it wasn't above the line from a health standpoint. We have been getting quality work from Mike Adams, who is healthy, so we decided to go with the healthy hand. We also did that in other situations, whether it was Ike Taylor or James Harrison.
"Again, we'll go through the same process this week. We'll let participation be our guide. (Gilbert) will be given an opportunity to display that, and we'll let what he does be our guide like it was last week."
Gilbert's was an injury situation, but there are others, too, such as the one at inside linebacker, where Sean Spence and Vince Williams are splitting the position once manned by rookie Ryan Shazier. When asked whether he was satisfied with the play of Spence/Williams there, Tomlin said, "I was satisfied with it last week. It may be different this week."
Tomlin added, "We've ever so slightly marching Shazier back in terms of his participation. He's getting on a moving train, if you will. He played more defense this past week than he did the week before. Maybe he'll play more this week. We'll continue to grow with that and let practice participation and effectiveness be our guide in terms of who plays, because that's just the right thing to do."
And how does a guy go about securing playing time at this point of the season?
"Detail, detail, detail," said Tomlin. "It's more about that for a young guy than the physicality of it anyway. Are their eyes in the right place? Are they utilizing the proper technique to play from a penalty-free standpoint or to win the possession downs against skilled individuals? You have to be on the screws defending guys like (Chiefs' running backs) Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis out of the backfield. If you don't understand leverage and where your help is, you're going to be exposed. And so much of that is above-the-neck.
"So much of that readiness is reinforced and displayed in a practice setting or a preparation setting. There's a lot to learn from that standpoint as we prepare."
Just like training camp.
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"Matt Spaeth hyperextended his elbow in the game. We're going to have to watch him this week and maybe brace him up and see how effective he is playing with that. Mike Mitchell strained his groin in the game, but he went back in. But some of that kind of stuff is adrenaline based, and we have to watch him this week and do the right things in terms of his participation. We'll watch how he participates in practice. Some of the guys who came up just a step short in terms of participating in the game last week, we feel positive about their return this week. Those guys are James Harrison and Marcus Gilbert and Ike Taylor, but we'll work those guys and evaluate them as we prepare."