By BOB LABRIOLA
LATROBE – The preseason is a time to work on all of the things that go into winning games in the NFL, and one of the most important ingredients to winning is not beating yourself.
If that sounds as rudimentary as it is, it still is something worth emphasizing during the four-game preseason, and Coach Mike Tomlin is doing just that.
In a 16-10 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in their preseason opener, the Steelers committed no turnovers and no pre-snap penalties. By contrast, the Eagles turned the ball over once, had five pre-snap penalties and committed two unsportsmanlike conduct infractions.
That is a significant edge, especially in a one-score game, and the Steelers will be looking to do even better when they travel to Toronto to face the Buffalo Bills at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 14.
"We want to be a tough team to beat, and part of being a tough team to beat is not beating ourselves," said Tomlin, "so we are really focused on the things that are not talent oriented, but more of a cohesion oriented and technically oriented."
In every game, turnovers are a significant factor in the outcome, and if penalties are less so, they can be more annoying in the preseason because they can inhibit the evaluation process. There is some value in seeing how individuals or units respond to adversity during a game, but a penalty can set up a prohibitive down-and-distance situation and therefore steal valuable in-game repetitions for players who need them.
"I didn't think we were highly penalized last time out, but a lot of our penalties were technical in nature," said Tomlin. "It was a good sign that we didn't have pre-snap, post-snap penalties. Those things, of course, make you easy to beat. But we did have some technical issues that we hope to clean up. We are looking for perfection from the assignment standpoint, and we really want to focus on the things that require no talent."
In terms of his plan for using his talent, Tomlin said the first units will play more than they did against the Eagles, which was one series apiece. This is the game where Justin Hartwig gets his chance to center the first-team offensive line as the competition with Sean Mahan for that starting job continues.
"We are just going to continue to sort those things out and hopefully the answers will become clear to us because they will," said Tomlin. "So we are going into the game looking at the quality of play, the cohesion of the unit. Of course, the sooner we get the starting five together, the better."
Tomlin said that recently-signed Byron Leftwich will follow Roethlisberger at quarterback, and then it will be Dennis Dixon after that. Mike Potts will play only if the coaching staff is satisfied with the number of snaps Leftwich and Dixon get.
Other areas of competition for primary roles are punt returner and kickoff returner. Against the Eagles, Mewelde Moore, Eddie Drummond and Jeremy Bloom returned punts, while Rashard Mendenhall and Willie Reid were deep on kickoffs.
"We will have a similar rotation, but we will swap some people out," said Tomlin. "What I mean is Willie Reid will get an opportunity to return a punt or two; Eddie Drummond will get the opportunity to return a kickoff or two. We are still looking at Mewelde Moore and Rashard Mendenhall. Mewelde is a punt returner, Rashard is a kickoff returner. Of course Jeremy Bloom will get the opportunity at both, depending on how many snaps we get. Hopefully, we won't get that many opportunities at kickoff return."
INJURY REPORT: Tomlin said the following players are out of the game against the Bills: QB Charlie Batch (collarbone), DE Kyle Clement (right knee sprain), ILB Mike Humpal (stinger), FS Ryan Mundy (high ankle sprain), SS Troy Polamalu (hamstring), P Daniel Sepulveda (knee) and Deshea Townsend (groin).
GAME TIME CHANGE: The Steelers announced the time of their preseason finale against the Carolina Panthers – on Thursday, Aug. 28 at Heinz Field – has been moved to 7 p.m. to accommodate the Democratic National Convention. The game originally had been scheduled for 7:30 p.m.