By BOB LABRIOLA
Throughout the NFL, it's a generally accepted principle that the third preseason game is the one most resembling a regular season contest. This characterization usually refers to the amount of playing time given to the front-line players, but it goes beyond that for the Steelers in Saturday night's game against the Buffalo Bills at Heinz Field.
Coach Mike Tomlin is using the entire week as a teaching tool.
"It's a dry-run on a mock week, a regular season week, for us," said Tomlin. "We approached our preparation as if it were a game week, even down to hotel stays and weekend schedules and so forth. We're approaching this thing from a game-plan standpoint, from a preparation standpoint, from an attitude standpoint as if it were Sept. 10."
Of course, that is the date when the Steelers open their 2009 regular season by hosting the Tennessee Titans at Heinz Field. That remains the ultimate target, but Bills week can be considered target practice.
"Of course, we're not going to play 60 minutes of football with our people, but from a mentality standpoint, from a preparations standpoint, we're getting a look at what it looks like putting it together, specifically for the first half of play," said Tomlin.
The Steelers first units will play the first half, and Tomlin said an evaluation during halftime of the game against the Bills will determine whether those units will play into the third quarter. There is a balance to be found here, because while getting the team ready for the rigors and routine of the regular season is important, there still are players battling for roster spots.
On Sept. 1, all teams must reduce their rosters to 75 players, and then on Sept. 5 comes the mandatory cut-down to 53.
Tomlin believes this simulated regular season week, which includes more game-planning than at any other time during the preseason, will help in that area as well. Doing it this way will allow the coaching staff to see how a young player is able to absorb the information taught during week and then execute it on the field during the game.
"We have a legitimate, simulated game week. Of course, the game is on Saturday, which is like an in-season Sunday, and so we put the schedule together that way," said Tomlin. "We're working as a coaching staff in that way, presenting information to the guys. Now we're working with a lot of people, some of whom are kind of getting their feet wet as to what we're doing in professional football, so you lose some of the minute details that you would have in an in-season game plan, but we will be game plan ready."
There are legitimate battles at just about every position on the team, and so the game against the Bills will be significant even after the starters on offense and defense have been replaced. It often has been noted that the Steelers have 20 of 22 starters back from the units that took the field for Super Bowl XLIII, but the spots on the depth chart behind those guys is far from being etched in stone even at this stage of the preseason.
"Some of the position battles that people are following, those guys get a chance to distinguish themselves by learning something new that's game-plan specific and being able to execute it," said Tomlin. "And more times than not, usually, some people distinguish themselves in a negative way by their inability to do that. So it's all part of the evaluation process, and it creates more clarity for some of these position battles."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE: "Guys who can be characterized as out this week: Dennis Dixon, with his shoulder. Sean McHugh did get his surgery clean-up, and it's what we thought it was. He's probably going to be down for four weeks or so. He's out this weekend, of course. Darnell Stapleton is marching back, but he's not ready to participate at this point. Some other guys who I can characterize as questionable at this time: Steve McLendon has an elbow, which makes him questionable. Jeff Reed's got a sore ankle, which makes him questionable. Of course, if he's unable to perform for us, Piotr Czech, who's been doing a great job for us, will handle all of those kicking duties. Santonio Holmes still has a sore back from taking a helmet in D.C. Willie Parker's hamstring is still sore, and Frank Summers, of course, will probably be the most questionable of them all because of being where he is in terms of his career. He's a rookie guy who hasn't practiced very much. Even if he got to the point where he was healthy enough to participate, you hesitate sending a guy like that out there on a limited number of snaps. You'd be setting him up for failure. All of those guys are questionable and Frank is the most questionable."