In a way, the first week of a regular season is an extension of the preseason, because with so little fresh information available on your opponent it makes a lot of sense to concentrate your time polishing facets of your own performance. That's how the Steelers will be approaching the start of their 2019 regular season.
"Just the start of the season itself is a tremendous challenge for the team, and so we're appropriately focused on a lot of things relative to us right now," said Coach Mike Tomlin during his weekly news conference today at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. "We know what's waiting on us at the end of the week, but we're focused on a lot of things that are within our control."
What's waiting for the Steelers at the end of this week is a game on the road against the defending champion New England Patriots, and part of the charged atmosphere awaiting them will have to do with the home team celebrating its sixth Lombardi Trophy.
"I'm not overly concerned with that element of it. I'm focused on the things that all teams are focused on this time of year – the things they need to be focused on, which are division of labor, quality of detail, how much we're asking them to do and their ability to deliver it. The focus is generally on you when you haven't stepped into a stadium yet, and appropriately so."
Even though the opponent is a Patriots team that has had the same coach working with the same quarterback since 2001, there are going to be variables the Steelers have had no ability to scout because New England has not put anything of substance on video during the preseason. Sure, the quarterback will be Tom Brady, but his starting tight end is Matt LaCosse and not Rob Gronkowski; the center will be Ted Karras, who typically plays guard; two of the more dangerous wide receivers are Demaryius Thomas and Josh Gordon, and neither of them is listed with the rest of the first team on the depth chart.
And that's just the opponent. Also a challenge for the Steelers this week will be how much and in what ways a lot of the new components to their own team will be able to contribute on Sunday night, and even to what extent those components should be asked to contribute come Sunday night.
As examples, inside linebacker Mark Barron is new to the Steelers, and inside linebacker Devin Bush is new both to the Steelers and to the world of professional football.
Asked about how Barron's speed and coverage ability as an inside linebacker might impact this game and this edition of the Steelers defense, Tomlin said, "We're going to discover that as we get into this journey."
About Bush: "We have a bunch of young guys who could play some significant roles for us, but we also understand it's their first time in a stadium. So we have to manage that, some of the Devin Bushes of the world and guys like him who have a chance to be big components of what we do, but you also have to balance that with the fact it's their first time stepping into a stadium."
That will make preparing for the Patriots this week different than it was preparing for them last season when the game was played in December because by December a team is much more comfortable in its own skin while also being able to review months of video on the opponent to get some kind of a read on personnel and how the personnel likely is to be utilized.
And so the Steelers will spend the next few days working on what they know, which is how to make themselves as difficult to defeat as possible come Sunday night.
"Division of labor of our 53, how we're going to best utilize these guys, and how they best come together," said Tomlin. "Week 1 provides the first opportunity for that. Week 1, if you focus on your opponent, there's more gray because there is no establishment of those things. We need to focus on the establishment of ours, and I'm sure New England is focused on the establishment of theirs, and the quality with which we do that will determine the quality of our play. We as coaches have to be real sharp in what we ask our guys to do; the guys in turn have to be able to execute what we ask them to do at a high level, with great detail.
"We better be pretty good from a detail standpoint. We better be thoughtful about what we ask our guys to do. We better give them enough, but at the same time we better not give them too much."
That's because the quarterback across the line of scrimmage will be Tom Brady.
"I'm less concerned about tricking (Brady) and matching wits (with him)," said Tomlin. "I'm more concerned about Week 1 things: Our level of communication; our readiness; our positioning; our eyes. We have to make sure that those things are consistently above the line. If we don't, he will exploit them. This is the issue for us as it relates to (Brady) at this stage of the season. It's a different matchup than in 2018 when we were playing them in the latter part of the year, when divisions of labor and what you could expect from both us and them was more established."