It's not the football version of opening night on Broadway, but it is as close to it gets to final dress rehearsal.
The Steelers will be visiting Philadelphia for a 7:30 p.m. game on Thursday at Lincoln Financial Field, and in today's NFL this third preseason game provides the final, extended action for the many of the players Coach Mike Tomlin will be counting on when the regular season opens on Sept. 7.
"We're going to continue to play our first units more than they have the previous week," said Tomlin. "I haven't decided on the exact number, but obviously you can assume it's going to be more than they played in the previous games. It's just the natural part of the process. You like to mock this week up and have it simulate a regular in-season week in a lot of ways, but with the short week and the number of people we're working with it won't be a complete mock week as in many instances in the past. We won't have a complete comprehensive game plan, situationally, across the board, but it will be a nice step for us."
It will be a step for the Steelers taken against an offense that's unique to the league, but only for the reason of the pace at which it's run. The Eagles offense isn't necessarily cutting edge for the plays it runs, but what's different is the pace at which the ball is snapped. Tomlin has said one of the goals of this preseason is to put as much stress on players and units as possible to see how individuals react. The Eagles' pace will provide some stress Thursday night.
"I think maybe some of the things that (Coach Chip Kelly) does in the manner in which he does it is overblown," said Tomlin. "There's a lot of window dressing and so forth pre-snap in terms of the tempo and the location of eligible receivers and things of that nature. But once the ball is snapped they're a good fundamental outfit.
"They're sound in the running game, and it's a high percentage passing game. They completed like 71 percent of their passes so far in the preseason because it's a lot of misdirection passes tightly tied to the run game, and it's play-action vertical passing. Nick Foles does a good job of administering it. They're a good, sound, offensive football team, and I think they probably like some of the talk about some of the window dressing. But when you really get down to it they're a good, sound, fundamental group. I think the same can be said for Coach Kelly."
While the third preseason game offers the most extensive playing time for the first units, it's also a last, best opportunity for some other players to make enough of an impression either to earn a spot on the 53-man roster or possibly a role on offense, defense or special teams.
The walking wounded, those unable to play against the Eagles, could find themselves at a disadvantage, because the first mandatory roster cutdown is 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 26 when all teams must be down to 75. Then on Saturday, Aug. 30, it's the cutdown to 53.
"From an injury standpoint we have some people who are out definitively this week," said Tomlin, "and we have some other guys we'll hold out as we do this time of year. The guys who are definitely out: Eric Waters has a concussion, Shaquille Richardson has a lateral knee (injury), and he won't participate. Cody Wallace had a finger fracture that was fixed; he won't participate. Greg Warren obviously won't participate coming off his meniscus tear and surgery. Jordan Zumwalt with his groin injury will not participate.
"There are a variety of guys with soft tissue injuries kind of associated with this time of year whom we'll leave the light on for and wait until the eleventh hour to see if they are available. Those guys are Will Allen with a hamstring, Tauren Poole with a hamstring, Devin Smith with a hamstring, and Will Johnson with a hamstring.
"We're getting to the meat of this thing a little bit, and if guys are going to make a move it's kind of now or never," added Tomlin. "I like that feeling of urgency in the guys as we prepare this week and I think it's creating a good competitive environment as we get back here in terms of continuing the team building on the South Side."