Tomlin wants to see growth across the board

LATROBE, Pa. – Acknowledging that second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett needs more snaps in the preseason than a more veteran quarterback, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said Wednesday that all healthy players will see at least some action in the team's preseason opener Friday night in Tampa against the Buccaneers.

Pickett, who appeared in 13 games in 2022, starting 12 of those contests, might not get the 39 passing attempts he did in last year's preseason, but Tomlin said his young quarterback needs more preseason snaps than perhaps a veteran such as Ben Roethlisberger did late in his career.

"Yes. We'll play it by ear. We'll give him what he needs," Tomlin said here at Saint Vincent College. "That's always my mentality. I'm open to all that are healthy playing. How much they play will be determined by what it is they need to be a productive step in the process for them. Then, we'll deal with next week next week."

Pickett likely won't be alone in playing in the preseason opener against Tampa Bay. With just three preseason games before the Steelers open the regular season Sept. 10 at Acrisure Stadium against San Francisco, Tomlin wants to ensure his team gets the work necessary to be ready to hit the ground running in that game.

Though star outside linebacker T.J. Watt and running back Najee Harris were both injured to some degree in last year's preseason, Tomlin isn't overly concerned with exposing his players to injuries as much as he is getting the team ready to play.

A number of teams in recent years have decided to not play any front-line players in the preseason, but Tomlin doesn't subscribe to that theory.

"Obviously, we want to keep everybody upright. But injuries are a component of the game," Tomlin said. "We can't live in our fears. We've got to get individuals and collectives ready to play. I just think philosophically, I just lean toward playing, in general. I know there are different approaches to the preseason, and I respect the approaches and the opinions of others, but that's kind of always been in my comfort zone.

"If we're going to box, we have to spar. If we need to get ready for the regular season, preseason is an avenue with which to do it for individuals and collectives."

Take a look at the Steelers training and preparing for the 2023 season at Saint Vincent College

How much playing time each unit or individual needs to be ready is different.

And with the NFL shortening its preseason from four games to three a few years ago, that all has to be weighed.

"Each team is different," Tomlin said. "I'm comfortable with the number of games, but I'm always trying to figure out what's appropriate in terms of work for this group individually and collectively. We've got some young guys developing. While at the same time they have experience, it's good to go through the process of game readiness, finding that rhythm and going out and executing, so I'm excited about participation."

A big part of that development will take place in Friday night's game.

While there are many things that can be gleaned from OTAs or training camp practices, there are still many things that can only manifest themselves while working against another team in a game setting.

Those are the things Tomlin is ready to see from his team, which added a significant number of new pieces in the offseason. Though it can certainly still change, Tomlin's initial depth chart released earlier this week includes no fewer than eight new starters from the team that ended the 2022 season.

With so many new faces, the preseason games have an increased value.

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"I'm very much interested in fundamental things, individually and collectively, alignment and assignment things. I need a group of individuals that play fast at full speed and fluidity, like they know what they're doing," Tomlin said. "I want to see individuals and the collective that are situationally aware, lines to gain and so forth. I'm really interested in them making routine plays routinely for their position. Oftentimes, people think professional ball is about the spectacular. It's really about being able to deliver with an appropriate level of consistency. I'm going to stress that. 

"From a unit perspective, I want to see them play complimentary football and display their awareness. I want to see a punt team in the red zone keep units on a long field. I want to see defense compliment field position. I want to see offense take advantage of field position. The complementary component of it is something that is really important because you don't get that in a practice setting. It's iron on iron, where as Friday night, we'll play together. I feel groups that display awareness in that regard and compliment one another."

Beyond that, he wants to see his team tested in an environment that might be outside of their comfort zone, doing things that can't be measured in a practice setting.

"I'm just excited about seeing this group communicate," Tomlin said. "I think communication indicates understanding. You're not going to play good football without communication. I'll be looking for that. I'm excited about the environment for the offensive unit, playing on the road and getting some of the exposures that come with playing on the road, play clock and things of that nature."