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Tomlin will play starters vs. Atlanta, with caveats

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin isn't one to live in his fears. He's more about tangible results.

As such, Tomlin plans to play "those that are healthy," in Thursday night's preseason finale against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes Benz Stadium.

But he'll do so with some caveats.

"First-team All-Pros all and 30-year-old corners I know more about, and so it's not about the guys oftentimes that I choose not to play, it's about the opportunity for others," Tomlin said Tuesday, referencing players such as defensive lineman Cam Heyward, linebacker T.J. Watt, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and cornerback Patrick Peterson.

The same cannot be said of the team's young offense. Though the first-team offense has produced three touchdowns in three possessions in the first two preseason games, Tomlin wants to see quarterback Kenny Pickett and company for at least a little bit against Atlanta.

After all, the Steelers have more than two weeks between their preseason finale and the start of the regular season Sept. 10 against the 49ers at Acrisure Stadium.

"Within the groups, there's things that we want to see from individuals in terms of stating the case for themselves in terms of dividing the labor up or being a component of the group," Tomlin said. "And so we'll play the first group until we get a level of satisfaction on both sides of the ball with those agendas, and then we'll move on to the second and then the third. And we'll go from there.

"By no means am I guaranteeing that everyone plays. Really, it's our ability to see what it is that we need to see before we move on."

Whether that means a higher volume of plays – the first-team offense has played just 15 snaps thus far – or if it means simply going out and scoring again remains to be seen.

But quantity is trumped by quality.

"We need reps and the growth that's associated with reps," Tomlin said. "But, you know, there's more growth associated with good reps. And so, you know, we want to eliminate negativity in our game."

What the coaching staff needs to see is opportunities for others to get on the field and state their case to either make the 53-man roster or vie for additional playing time.

NFL rosters must be trimmed to 53 players by Aug. 29, so Thursday's game will mark the final shot for players hoping to catch the eye of the coaching staff to do so.

At this point, the body of work is a big part of the process.

But, for example, for those hoping to acquire roles on special teams, the three preseason games take on greater importance.

"I think that's some of the things to be determined, particularly in an environment like this one," Tomlin said. "It's reasonable to expect those that are buying in to continue to warm up to that aspect to play. It's probably one of the most difficult things to simulate in a practice setting the intensity and things that occurred in that phase of the game and so the stadium players weighted heavily."

There just now happens to be fewer preseason games in which players hoping to make the roster as special teams standouts to state their case.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

The NFL went to a three-game preseason schedule when it increased its regular season slate to 17 games in 2021, eliminating that one additional opportunity for someone to make a splash on special teams.

Having one fewer game and then a long layoff in between has caused some coaches to adjust how or if they use starters in any preseason games.  Tomlin, however, has been one of a handful of NFL coaches who have continued to treat the preseason as he did before the fourth game was eliminated.

"I don't do it any differently than I did before the three-game schedule," Tomlin said. "I don't play play game three in this sequence any different than I played game three in the four game sequence."

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