Rookies biding their time

Mike Tomlin's approach to the Steelers' three remaining regular season games will be what it had been for the previous 13.

"I don't expect the mentality to change," Tomlin announced on Tuesday. "I know mine won't."

Injury or performance considerations aside, the lineup won't be changing, either. At 5-8, the Steelers will not be taking a look at youngsters for evaluation's sake. As Bill Cowher once observed prior to a preseason game long ago, "the starters will start."

And the youngsters will play when called upon, and as their performance in practice dictates.

"Let me say this, I am continually evaluating young talent in the midst of doing the things we desire to do, which is prepare and win this week," Tomlin continued. "It's not like it's a one-or-the-other proposition."

The Steelers' No. 1 pick has started seven games at outside linebacker this season. But he's no longer one of the Steelers' top two at the position, a status to which Jones had ascended for the Sept. 16 game at Cincinnati.

When Jason Worilds and LaMarr Woodley are both healthy, as both were last Sunday against Miami, Jones contributes as a reserve.

"Things happen," Jones said. "I try not to let it bother me. You take it and roll with it and learn how to make it a positive."

He's learned a great deal as a rookie, mostly that "I have a lot to work on," Jones said.

Jones' learning experience continued against the Dolphins and 6-foot-8, 352-pound offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie.

"No. 78, that dude was huge, man," Jones observed. "He doesn't move a lot, but when he does you're like, 'Wow, that's Shaq playing football.' He was huge. And he was heavy, too.

"So things like that, the hands, building strength, speed, weight, all of that stuff will count. Football is a game of inches so you want to be as big, as strong, and as fast as you can. That's something I really need to focus on in the offseason and over the course of these next three games and continue to get better."

The Steelers' No. 4a pick was seeing regular snaps at safety in a six-defensive backs sub-package defense until an ankle injury sidelined him for what turned out to be the wins over Buffalo on Nov. 10 and Detroit on Nov. 17. Since returning to active duty Thomas has played special teams.

"(Safety) Will Allen came in when I was injured and made a couple plays," Thomas said. "He's doing his thing, a 10-, 11-year vet. I'm just learning from all of them and hoping I come back next year stronger.

"It's definitely valuable, getting my feet wet. It's taught me what I have to work on in the offseason, my footwork, cover skills, tackling, reading keys. I have to stay in the film room and get smarter in the game."

Thomas has started twice this season. He played on the kickoff and punt-return teams against Miami.

"Next year's going to be different, I promise you that," Thomas said. "My mentality, the way the game is. It was kind of fast for me this year. I'm going to try to slow it down next year."

The Steelers' No. 3 pick has one start at wide receiver and six catches for 64 yards to show for a rookie season that was interrupted by surgery in October to repair a broken finger. He's been mostly a special teams player the past five games after returning from a four-game absence.

Wheaton was on the field for "two or three snaps" at wide receiver against Miami.

"I learned a ton," Wheaton insisted. "There are a lot of guys to learn from, including Ben (Roethlisberger), being next to him in the locker room. Antonio (Brown) is having a great year. I've been watching film on him, watching him in the game, watching him in practice, watching him in the meeting room trying to learn from him, same thing with (Jerricho) Cotchery and Emmanuel (Sanders).

"Anybody who's not on the field is anxious to get on the field. The injury didn't ruin my year, but it did set me back a little bit. I felt I was making progress each game, then I fell off. Just trying to get it back and get back into it.

"In the offseason I'm planning on putting in some hard work and coming back a much-improved player. Just being with the organization I learned a lot and I think that's very important."

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